All parents have safety concerns when it comes to their children. But children on the autism spectrum are at a higher risk of being hurt, victimized or wandering off, to name a few worries that are high on the list of parental concerns. Children with autism do not appear to have a safety 'antenna' built in, and their sensory processing does not effectively work to help them in the area of safety and crisis prevention. When asked, many adults on the spectrum have strong feelings about safety, and what they endured as children and teens.
Many adults with autism (including Asperger's Syndrome) remember putting themselves in unsafe situations due to sensory processing challenges. These challenges prevented them from feeling when something was too hot or too cold, an object was very sharp, or from "seeing" that it was too far to jump from the top of a jungle gym to the ground below. Even if they learn safety rules such as 'Look both ways before crossing the street,' or 'Do not cross the street without an adult,' their sensory processing challenges put them in danger because all they may see is the beautiful yellow line in the middle of the road or a bright neon sign on the other side and may run to touch it.
The fears of ASD parents are well-grounded for other types of safety concerns as well. Roughly half, or 48%, of children with an ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% total U.S. deaths reported in children with an ASD ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering/elopement (National Autism Association, Lethal Outcomes in ASD Wandering, 2012).
Nonverbal children and teens are at high risk of physical and sexual abuse because of their perceived inability to communicate. The abuse rate for children with a developmental disability is 3.4 times the rate of children without disabilities (Boystown, 2001, Patricia Sullivan). Predators recognize well the opportunities for abuse: the nonverbal child who needs a one-on-one aide; an adult who requires twenty-four hour support staff; children and adults who have few communication skills and spend their days in self-contained classrooms; special camps and segregated living and working facilities. Predators know there is very little likelihood of their being caught as these victims either will not be able to communicate or they will not be believed.
Many adults on the more able end of the spectrum interviewed for my book Autism Life Skills described feeling terrified during their student years. Practically all recounted instances of being bullied. Some said they had been sexually or physically abused, though some did not even realize at the time that they were being abused or victimized at the time, because they did not recognize the perpetrator's behaviors as such.
People on the more able end of the autism spectrum are at risk because they are not good at reading body language and figuring out a person's intent. Many verbal adults reported, with hindsight, that they put themselves in situations that made them easier targets to be victimized.
All this to say, parents have good cause to be concerned about the safety of their children on the spectrum - no matter their child's age. And being concerned means getting educated about what a parent can do besides worry. Knowledge is empowering! In my next post, I'll provide some tips on how to help children and teenagers learn about safety, as well as some information on how to help prevent wandering. Meanwhile there are some free resources on crisis prevention and safety on AutismCollege.com, National Autism Association.