This blog post has been adapted from “Chapter 2: Childhood” of OAR’s resource “Life Journey Through Autism: A Guide to Safety”.
While your neighborhood can (and should) feel like a safe and familiar space, consider the potential threats posed by physical elements outside your home: roads, parking lots, traffic, etc. Bodies of water (e.g., pools, lakes, rivers) often are attractive to children with autism. Play spaces, parks, or other community spaces also may be causes for concern because of the lack of boundaries, potential for wandering, and the increased likelihood of encountering strangers. Crowds in any setting can cause sensory overload and can trigger unsafe behavior—even when your child has learned and practiced what to do in those uncomfortable situations.
Planning and Prevention
- Practice street safety: “Stop, Look Both Ways, Walk”
You can practice street, traffic, and parking lot safety every day. Work together on crossing at designated areas, looking for traffic, and listening for loud noises from cars and trucks. Teach “Stop, Look Both Ways, Walk.” Focus on the basics: how to look both ways multiple times before crossing a street, how to respond when there is traffic, understanding what each of the colors on a traffic light mean, etc.
In addition to these specific skills, it’s also helpful to provide your child with context: why it is important to always pay attention and be careful near roads and cars? Make sure to teach your child in various contexts, and ensure that he can accurately complete every step.
Lesson: How to Cross the Street
Set up: Before practicing how to cross a street at a real intersection, start with covering the basics. Use toy cars, pictures of traffic lights, and videos of pedestrians walking at intersections, to make sure that the child knows the fundamentals (e.g., traffic light colors, crosswalk area, etc.). Once the child has demonstrated an understanding of the basics, practice crossing the street in a controlled environment (e.g., an intersection with limited traffic). In the beginning trials, start by holding the child’s hand. After multiple successful trials, use your discretion to begin letting the child walk further distances away without holding his hand. Remember to observe how consistently he performs in multiple crossings and at different times of the day.
Rules: Deliver clear instructions for what to do in certain situations (e.g., ‘‘Stop at the intersection”).
Prompting: At a real intersection, the prompter should be within arm’s reach of the child to give immediate feedback and to ensure the child’s safety. Use the following instructions as a guide to delivering clear prompts. For example, the prompter can say on step 3 (see below), “The light is green. You can cross the street when the light is green.” Use indirect and direct physical prompts if necessary.
Instructions and Example Visual:
- Walk to intersection –> Picture of boy walking up to street intersection
- Stop at intersection. Do not cross yet –> Picture of boy standing at street intersection
- Identify traffic light color and make decisions –> Pictures of traffic lights (red, yellow, green, pedestrian variants, etc.)
- Look both ways to see if it is safe to cross –> Video #1 of cars moving, Video #2 of cars not moving
- Use only the crosswalk area between the white lines of the street –> Picture of someone using the crosswalk
- Cross the street quickly –> Model behavior
Be sure to answer key questions such as “What color is the light?” “Can we walk on ___?” “Is it safe to cross the street?”
Feedback: Immediate and enthusiastic praise should be given to the child when he exhibits the appropriate skill correctly (e.g., when he correctly identifies the traffic light as red and waits for it to turn green before walking). The child can never fail the task because the prompter will guide the child as needed until the skill is performed, which is always followed immediately by positive feedback.
For more information on creating a social story, check out Appendix B.
For an example lesson rubric, check out Appendix E.
- Enroll your child in swimming lessons and teach water safety
Many children with autism have a tendency to wander away from home, and many are drawn to water. This combination often leads to tragic circumstances. Knowing what to do in and near water can be life-saving for many children with autism. Swimming is an essential skill that can help prevent water-related injuries or death by drowning. Teaching your child to swim won’t just give you peace of mind when you’re visiting the neighborhood pool; it decreases the likelihood of accidental drowning if your child wanders off. Start lessons as early as possible and continue them as needed, even when your child gets older. There are many swim classes (and instructional videos) that are tailored to children with autism and other special needs. If those options aren’t available to your family, then talk to your local swim coach about how to teach and motivate your child.
- Motivation examples: patience, repetition, positive reinforcement, breaking down basics into more manageable pieces, etc.
Check to see of your community has programs specific to individuals with special needs or adapted aquatics programs. If you haven’t already enrolled your child in swimming lessons, then there’s no better time than now—regardless of how old they are. Once your child has mastered the techniques, provide safe, structured opportunities for them to practice.
For a list of YMCA locations that offer special needs swimming instructions, check out the National Autism Association.
- Emphasize play space, park, and community safety
Playgrounds, parks, and other community spaces can provide fun opportunities for children to engage with same-age peers. To keep these environments safe, consider implementing some ground rules with your child. For example, stay within the playground boundaries, don’t jump off structures (kids with autism can misjudge the distance to the ground), and always have some form of ID, whether it’s wearable or in a pocket.
Your child might have a play buddy. In that case, it is always a good idea that they stay together. Be familiar with your community play spaces; know their boundaries and proximity to other things (e.g., rivers, ponds, and roads).
Your child also may interact with animals in community spaces. While this may not be a concern for some children with autism, it may be helpful for your child to make the distinction between the family pet, others’ pets, and “wild” animals, to avoid potential problems.
You also may want to keep a record of what noises or triggers might cause your child to forget safety protocols. Most importantly, have a workable system in place to make sure someone (you or another trusted adult) has an eye on your child at all times.
Provide active adult supervision
Adults play an important role in actively supervising and intervening early to correct behavior problems, especially in common areas (e.g. playgrounds). By moving continuously throughout an area and having positive interactions, adults are able to teach and model expected behavior and routines, notice and reward appropriate behavior, and intervene early so that minor rule violations are handled effectively before problematic behaviors escalate.
Environmental Threats: Five Tips for Success
- Become familiar with the places around and outside your home where your child is spending time. Once you have done that, identify any potential threats — whether physical or sensory — and address them.
- When you teach your child community skills, try to provide context. For example, help your child understand why it’s important to look both ways before crossing the street.
- As mentioned earlier, it is essential for your child to learn how to swim and be safe around water. Enroll your child in lessons as soon as possible; it’s never too late to learn.
- Make sure that you or a trusted adult has an eye on your child at all times, especially when in crowded or open spaces.
- As always, engage your safety network (including first responders) in the case of an emergency. Prepare for this in advance by writing down all of the places that your child goes and whom to call if something goes wrong. Make sure this list is part of your family’s safety plan and that it is updated regularly.
Children are vulnerable to various dangers and threats, and related safety concerns come in many forms and circumstances. Autism presents its own set of vulnerabilities. In some cases, your child’s behaviors and traits may make them more susceptible to everyday safety concerns. In other cases, the characteristics of autism create the vulnerability. Life Journey Through Autism: A Guide to Safety is intended for parents and family members who have loved ones with autism. Its purpose is to give you, your family, and the network of individuals and caregivers whom you rely on for support and services the tools, tips, and information needed to identify and address safety threats at home, school, and in the community—ideally before an emergency arises. For more valuable information and tools. be sure to check out OAR’s resources.