Focus on Safety at ASNC Conference


The Autism Society of North Carolina held its annual conference March 11-12 in Charlotte. We have been sharing information from conference presentations in occasional blog posts.

Nancy Nestor and Nancy Popkin, two Charlotte-area Autism Resource Specialists, presented a session titled “Staying Two Steps Ahead: Safety Considerations for Caregivers,” on the second day of the conference.

Staying safe encompasses all aspects of life, and accommodations can be made for a multitude of environments; however, both presenters emphasized the importance of teaching safety skills (and any other skill) in the home first. A person’s home provides a desired level of comfort and control, which helps lead to more successful skill development that can then be taken into the community.

It’s important to be prepared and understand key safety measures in a variety of situations, in particular those that can happen without warning. What should families consider when it comes to safety for their loved ones with autism?

  • Communication
  • Judgment
  • Sensory issues
  • Difficulty with/level of problem-solving
  • Learning differences

These five considerations help determine how an individual might develop the basic skills that are key to ensuring safety: following directions, transitioning, and managing behavior.

Following Directions

One of the main ways we stay safe is by following safety protocols, or rules. For individuals with autism, this can present a challenge, which is why it is important to establish a method for following directions. Most commonly, families employ a visual schedule to aid their loved one in understanding what is happening at what time and what steps need to be taken depending on the situation. In the summer 2015 Spectrum magazine, Nancy Popkin described her own experiences with developing visual schedules for her son and how vital they have been toward his success in all areas of his life. When teaching safety, using schedules helps individuals with autism anticipate the circumstances before they happen and make safe decisions.

Transitions and Managing Behavior

Learning to follow directions and anticipating future circumstances will aid in a person’s ability to then handle transitions between environments as well as manage his or her behavioral response. The following tips will help with easing transitions and better preparing you to work through challenging behaviors.

  • Plan ahead and have a plan B. Circumstances can change quickly, so it’s helpful to have alternate plans lined up. This can easily be communicated with a visual schedule.
  • Be prepared and proactive. Bring a community bag that contains books, favorite toys, snacks, water, a change of clothes, etc. This bag essentially contains anything that might be helpful if an unexpected event or transition occurs or you need to divert attention away from a situation.

Fire and Emergency Safety

In the case of an emergency such as a fire, it is important that the individual with autism knows what to do and the first responders understand how to interact with and ultimately help the individual. The speakers shared the following important tips:

  • Schedule a visit with your local first responders and have your loved one meet them. This gives them an increased familiarity with your family and your child and his or her needs should they ever come to your home. It also helps your child become more comfortable with the first responders and their equipment.
  • Create an exit plan (employing appropriate communication/visual tools) and go over the plan. This can include multiple drill rehearsals – you want to make sure that the plan will be followed during an emergency.
  • Safeguard and secure hazardous items, either in locked cabinets or out of reach.
  • For more fire safety-specific information for individuals with autism, visit the National Fire Protection Association’s website.

Wandering Safety

One of the keys to safety is planning ahead and being aware of future surroundings, particularly if you have a loved one who tends to elope or wander. Here are several ways to help prevent wandering:

  • Secure your home, including windows, doors, and any other exit.
  • Place visual aids such as stop signs on exits in the home.
  • Avoid or cut short difficult situations that might trigger your loved one.
  • Scope out new environments outside of the home ahead of time – use apps such as Google Earth to see the potential geographic hazards.
  • Inform neighbors and community members about the potential situation and let them know the protocol if this were to happen.
  • Project Lifesaver or a similar tracking device is extremely helpful in located individuals who are missing from their home, working also to inform law enforcement.

School Safety

There are a variety of safety concerns in a school setting, despite the structured environment:

  • Cyberbullying and bullying. ASNC offers information on how to identify and approach a problem with the Bullying Toolkit.
  • Bus Safety – if your loved one rides the school bus, it’s important for the driver as well as any other support staff to understand his or her communication styles and that you take the time to go over the directions for staying safe.
  • Include safety and behavior goals as part of the IEP and work to teach the individual the rules instead of just having them follow them. If the individual has inappropriate behaviors that are in violation of the school rules, the Behavior & the IEP Toolkit provides more detailed information on the school disciplinary process and on how to address these behaviors.

 Other considerations

  • Bathroom etiquette: What is considered inappropriate behavior when using the bathroom in public?
  • How to respond to law enforcement: Different situations involving law enforcement require different responses and follow-up (e.g. a speeding ticket versus an emergency). Remember, law enforcement follow rigid protocols that might not consider the needs of someone with autism.
  • Self-disclosure: For individuals with autism, it’s important to teach the appropriate who, when, and how of disclosing their autism. Without these considerations, your loved one may inappropriately disclose this information to someone who is trying to take advantage of or harm him or her.

Nancy Nestor and Nancy Popkin are both moms to young adult sons with autism and ASNC Autism Resource Specialists in the Charlotte region. They can be reached at and or 704-894-9678. If you would like to learn more about safety in the community, see ASNC’s website.


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:

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 or call 919-865-5091.