How Can We Help Keep Children, Teens, Adults With Autism Safe?

Chantal Sicile-Kira provides autism safety tips for risk reduction

Posted Feb 06, 2012

In my last blog, I discussed some of the safety concerns of parents of children and teens on the spectrum. Children and teenagers may learn safety skills, adapted to the ability level of the child:
  • Sensory integration therapy can help with some sensory challenges such as being unable to feel hot and cold. Techniques such as brushing and joint compression to help organize the sensory system can be helpful. Vision therapy and auditory integration training can help as well with recognizing what is being seen and heard.
  • It is crucial to teach the same safety rules you would to any child, such as, "Don't open the door for anyone when you are home alone," or who is a safe person to approach in public for help. What will differ from child to child is how, and for how long, a lesson such as this needs to be taught. Even if you do not know how much the child understands because he has little communication skills, create social story books with pictures covering the rules and situations described in this chapter (i.e., who is a safe person to approach when lost), and go over it many times, in a matter of fact way. Social stories that explain why we don't open the door to strangers (and what constitutes a stranger) can be helpful. Practicing skills by having known and unknown people come to the door reinforce the lesson and are essential to learning. The purpose is not to scare the child, but to have him become aware of situations and what to do.
  • A school environment that strictly enforced a policy of "bullying will not be tolerated" is important and necessary. Preventing abusive behavior and bullying requires information sharing and awareness training. Peer and teacher training on autism and Asperger's Syndrome is necessary and should be provided.

Sensitizing the other students as to what autism is, teaching the child on the spectrum as to what is abusive behavior, and providing them with a safe place and safe person to go to at school would have as well.

  • Teaching the "hidden curriculum" (i.e., the unwritten rules of social behavior) and other social skills to children and teens on the more functionally able end of the spectrum. This enables them to learn what neurotypicals usually pick up by osmosis, gives them a greater understanding of the social world, and makes them less of an easy prey.
  • Junior and high school students, no matter the ability level, should be provided sex education. Discussions on sex and what constitutes a sex act, as well as the rights and responsibilities attached, is paramount to their safety from bullying of a sexual nature. One way to begin teaching these important but complicated topics is with a discussion of "private" and "public." Even those more impacted by autism can benefit from adults using icons with them from an early age to teach these concepts, and this is explained in a separate chapter.
  • More police and other first respondent training, as well as community awareness in general about autism and the behaviors a youth or adult may exhibit, is crucial for the safety and community living of those on the spectrum. First respondents in many areas are getting trained, but it is needed everywhere. Community awareness of what autism looks like at different ages and ability levels so as to be more understanding and perhaps recognize that a child is in danger is necessary. Often, people see a child with autism and think he is misbehaving, or see a teen or adult and think they are under the influence of drugs because they do not recognize or understand how a person with Asperger's may react or behave in certain situations when they feel anxious or overwhelmed.

The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration  is a working group of six national non-profit autism organizations whose mission is to prevent autism-related wandering incidents and deaths. From their website come the following crisis prevention tips:

  • Secure your home. Promote safety and prevention in your home by making improvements so your loved one cannot leave the house unnoticed.
  • Teach your child to swim.
  • Provide first responders with key information before an incident occurs as this may improve response.
  • Alert your neighbors. Tell your neighbors about your loved ones. Informational handouts can include a photo and pertinent information.
  • Provide your child with a Medical ID bracelets or which includes contact information. They may also state that your child has autism and is non-verbal, if that is the case.
  • Consider a tracking device. Check with local law enforcement for Project Lifesaver or LoJack SafetyNet services.

More free resources and informaiton are available on websites of National Autism Association  and AutismCollege.com.