Staying 2 Steps Ahead: Safety in the Community and at Home

This week’s Blog post comes from Autism Society of North Carolina Parent Advocate/Trainer Judy Clute.

Parents worry about their children’s health, happiness, and well-being, but parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) must look at their environment closely and take great care to ensure that their kids are safe both inside and outside the home. Why is safety for the person with ASD different from any other safety measures you would put in place for any child? Here are some things to consider:

  • Communication – Whether there is a lack of language or whether language is limited, this is the top reason we need to think ahead for our family members with ASD. Can they communicate to someone if they are lost or hurt? Will they be able to ask for help? Even if they are verbal, will they be able to communicate appropriately and effectively?
  • Judgment – Consider that sometimes people with ASD have poor judgment. They may not recognize who is safe to go to for help. Do they know where to seek out help? Do they know who in the community is safe to go to?
  • Sensory issues – People with ASD may run toward something of interest (ie: a train, a sign, music, water) or run away from something that is overwhelming (i.e. : music, loud sounds, too much commotion, lights). Needless to say, this can be a safety issue.
  • Problem solving skills – Such skills may be impaired by rigid thinking, lack of perspective and/or anxiety. If your child were lost or hurt, would they know what to do next?
  • Different learning styles – How can you teach your child about safety issues? Because of poor communication skills, many individuals with autism cannot share information verbally, some use visual cues, some use technology. How can they use these things in case of an emergency?

Children with ASD can be much more impulsive than neurotypical children. They may run away or wander off more than their typically developing peers. This can put them in greater danger of becoming lost, getting hurt, and becoming vulnerable to strangers. So what can we do?

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” but for parents of a child with ASD, it may feel more like a pound of prevention is needed. But the saying holds true, it’s better to prevent a problem than trying to fix it afterwards. Here are some tips for caregivers to consider:

  1. Do not isolate yourself – Inform you neighbors about your child or family member with ASD. Educating your neighbors about your child and their challenges can help if he/she ever wanders out of your home or yard. Give them your contact information and let them know what your child likes and dislikes.
  2. Contact first responders – Go to your local police station, fire station, and EMS. Take a current photo of your child along with a personal information handout (available in the ASNC Safe in the Community Kit). Include as much detail as possible about your child.
  3. Plan and rehearse – Does your loved one with ASD know what to do in case of a home fire? Are you prepared? The National Fire Protection Association has a great website that can help you and your family member with ASD be prepared. Their website has activities for children and a social story that can be individualized for your child. Another important skill to know involves teaching your child when and how to call 911.
  4. Securing your home – Consider putting safety items in place such as a home security alarm system, window locks and/or alarms on windows and doors to alert you if someone is trying to open them. Sometimes putting a “stop” sign on doors and windows can prevent a person with ASD from going any farther. If your child runs or wanders, consider putting a fence around your home with locked gates. If you have a pool, make sure the pool is not accessible without supervision. Teaching you’re child to swim is important, but it isn’t a guarantee that it will save someone from drowning.
  5. Communicate with your school – Discuss with your child’s teacher your concerns about your child’s safety. You may want to suggest that they offer a “Safety in the Community” workshop or other such training. Make safety part of his or her IEP goals. Work on how to safely cross the street, learn to recognize street signs (like “STOP”), and discuss who is a safe person and who is a stranger.

The Autism Society of North Carolina’s “Safe in the Community Kit”

The Autism Society of North Carolina can provide you (free of charge) “Safe in the Community” kits that contain some simple stickers to put in your windows to let first responders know if there is someone in the home with ASD. This simple sticker can make a huge difference in case of emergency. The kits include personal information sheets that can be shared with caregivers, first responder agencies, and others as well as ID cards that you can teach your child to carry with him or her at all times.

Kit Contents

Here are some great websites for resources to help you keep your ASD family members safe.

Adult Issues
What about adults with ASD or those with High Functioning Autism or Aspergers? These people may have wonderful spoken language but may not respond appropriately to a first responder or neighbors. They may be anxious or afraid. It is important to teach these individuals what to say in the event they are lost or hurt. They should be taught who they can trust – like a police officer, a fireman, a teacher. Introduce them to neighbors and family members that you trust. Help these individuals learn to self-advocate.

Another thing to consider is bathroom etiquette. You may wonder what this has to do with safety? Well, does your child go to the bathroom in restaurants or public parks by themselves? Most women do not realize that there is different bathroom etiquette for men than for women. Women frequently make conversation with others they may not know in a public restroom. This is not true for men. Children, especially boys, need to know not to talk to strangers in public restrooms and what to do if a stranger approaches them. Again, do they know who a stranger is? If not, teach them. They need to know how to address or respond to a policeman? They may be in a situation where it would be important to disclose that they have autism and need help. Teaching self-advocacy skills is extremely important.

Another consideration is internet safety. Many individuals have poor social skills and social judgment. For these individuals safety measures should be put in place to manage internet access – whether at home, school, or in the work place. If you have a child/young adult who is visual, place instructional picture cards directly on the computer. If they can read and understand written language, keep those rules right next to the computer and negotiate an internet use contract. Check with your ISP on safeguards. The NC Department of Justice has a website that contains several safe guards for internet safety: http://www.ncdoj.gov

Be proactive! Contact the Autism Society of North Carolina and let’s work together to keep our children and loved ones with ASD safe and sound.

Judy Clute is a Parent Advocate/Trainer in the ASNC Raleigh office. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact her by email at jclute@autismsociety-nc.org or call 919-865-5091.

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