HOW TO: Keep Your Child Safe | Organization for Autism Research

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Bridget Taylor is executive director and Kate Britton is the principal and assistant director of Alpine Learning Group, a Paramus, NJ-based program that provides learners with autism and their families comprehensive, scientifically validated educational and behavioral services designed to foster individual growth and personal achievement. This article first appeared in the March issue of The OARacle, OAR’s monthly newsletter.

Take Practical Steps to Ensure Your Child’s Safety
By Kate Britton, M.S.Ed., M.A., BCBA  and Bridget A. Taylor, PsyD, BCBA-D

Picture it:  You are at home alone with your three children, one of whom has autism. You are cooking dinner for your family when your phone rings. You answer it, diverting your attention from your children for one split second. When you turn back to check on your children, the front door is open and your child with autism is missing. You look out the door and your child is nowhere in sight.

It’s your worst nightmare:  Not knowing if your child is safe or in harm’s way. This fear is intensified if your child has difficulty communicating, does not differentiate between safe and unsafe situations, does not follow instructions consistently, and does not have the ability to defend himself.

Children with autism present with unique communication and behavioral issues that increase their risk of getting lost and injured. Parents of children with autism often fear their children with autism will get lost and be unable to communicate effectively to ensure their safety. In fact, in an online survey conducted by the National Autism Association, 92 percent of the parents indicated their child with autism was at risk of wandering away from his or her home or care provider.

These steps can ensure your child’s safety (some resources for more information are included at the end of the article):

Step 1:  Secure Your Home and Yard

One of the most important and practical things you can do is to secure your home and yard area so that your child is less likely to wander away. Many children quickly learn how to operate standard locks on exit doors. Install locks on doors and gates in the yard that your child cannot open. (Deadbolts that require keys on both sides of the doors or hook eyes that are too high for the child to reach are good examples.) In addition, install an alarm system that signals when a door or window is opened. There are a variety of systems available, including high-tech and low-tech options.

If you want to monitor your child from another room, you could use a video monitoring system or a baby monitor that has video monitoring capability. If you have a pool or a pool is nearby, install a pool alarm and encourage your neighbors who have pools to do the same. If your child goes into pools unsupervised, you can also use the Turtle, which is a wristband that locks securely around your child’s wrists and sounds an alarm if it immersed in water.

Step 2:  Keep Emergency Responders Informed

Call your local non-emergency telephone number and ask personnel to note in the 911 database that someone with autism lives at your address. If there was ever an emergency in your home, the emergency responders will know in advance that they need to respond accordingly. You can purchase and display decals on windows and doors to indicate a child with autism lives at your home.

If your child is at risk of wandering, bring a picture along with information about your child and autism in general to the local police station for the station to keep on file. Let the station officer know your child is at risk of wandering. This information will be helpful in locating your child sooner and help identify your child in the event he or she is found and brought to a police station by someone else.

Step 3:  Inform Your Neighbors

View your neighbors as another set of eyes. Give them a picture of your child along with some helpful information about your child (e.g., he is unable to speak, she responds to simple commands, he likes to swim so please keep your pool gate locked) and about autism in general. Also include your cell phone and home numbers so that they can call in the event they ever see your child wandering away from the house or walking the street unaccompanied by an adult.

Step 4:  Register Your Child

Register with the National Child Identification Program.[link to] The program also provides a kit that includes information on everything law enforcement would need, such as instructions on how to fingerprint your child, in case of an emergency.

Step 5:  Purchase Medical Identification Jewelry

The first question a stranger is likely to ask your child is, “What’s your name?” So it is important that your child can be understood by listeners who don’t know your child. If your child will not be understood or can’t relay enough information, you could use medical identification jewelry, such as a bracelet. Some companies only engrave an ID number and the company’s phone number, and when the company receives a call, a company representative contacts the parent or guardian. Other companies engrave whatever you request such as “Autism – Nonverbal,” allergies, and/or your cell phone number.

Step 6:  Plan Ahead for Vacations or Community Outings

Vacations should be enjoyable but are often stressful especially if your child is prone to wandering. Before choosing a vacation destination, determine the potential risk for your child with autism. For example, if your child tends to wander to swimming areas, you would not want a room near the pool or you may even stay in a location that does not have a pool. When arriving at your destination, inform the staff about your child and advise them that she will require supervision at all times and if they see her unsupervised to call you immediately. In addition, consider using portable door alarms for hotel rooms. If your child tends to wander, consider using child-locator systems or a global positioning system (GPS). There are also low-tech tracking devices, and some phone companies have designed cell phones with GPS programming.

Step 7:  Teach Functional Safety Skills

It’s essential to teach your child skills that will increase his safety. Work with your child’s school or treatment program to include the following safety goals in your child’s individualized education plan (IEP):

  • Responding to name: Teach your child to turn around and orient to you when his name is called.
  • Responding to “Come here”: Teach your child to come to you when you say, “Come here.” Practice this skill across many environments, including outside in the play yard and at the park.
  • Answering social questions: Teach your child to answer social questions that are relevant for safety (e.g., “Where do you live?” or “What is your mother’s name?” or “What is your mother’s cell phone number?”). Teach your child to respond to these questions in varied presentations (e.g., “Who are you?” and “What is your name?”). Be sure your child can be understood by novel listeners. If you child has an augmentative communication system, teach your child to answer these questions by activating her system.
  • Asking for permission to leave the house or yard area: Teach your child to approach you and ask to go for a walk or to go to a specific location.
  • Asking to go to preferred locations/places: Teach your child the names of his preferred locations (e.g., park, ice cream store, etc.) and teach him to request to go to these locations by name or by exchanging a picture of a place. Photos of the places could be hung on the inside front door to serve as a prompt for your child to request a preferred location.
  • Holding hands: Teach your younger child to hold your hand when you are walking in the community. While this sounds like a simple goal, some children with autism may require specific teaching in cooperating with hand holding especially in the community.
  • Crossing streets: Teach your child the skill of waiting at cross walks until no cars are present or until you give her permission to cross the street.
  • Walking/staying with an adult: Teach your child to follow alongside of you when you walk in the community, without holding his hand. This skill should be practiced in school or home first and then in the community.
  • Waiting appropriately: Teach your child to wait next to you in varied locations and in line at department stores.
  • Cooperating with wearing medical identification jewelry: Teach your child to tolerate wearing an identification bracelet or necklace.
  • Exchanging an identification card: Teach your child to take an identification card out of her pocket or wallet when asked different types of question such as “Are you lost?” or “What is your name?”
  • Answering a cell phone and following directions and answering questions: Teach your child to follow directions on the phone (e.g., “Walk to the kitchen” or “Find an adult”), and to answer questions on the phone (e.g., “Where are you?”).
  • Declining inappropriate instructions: Teach your child to walk away and say “No!” when given an inappropriate instruction from a stranger  (e.g., if a novel person says, “Come with me,” or “Give me your wallet,” the child is taught to say, “No” and walk away to find a familiar person to report what happened). When teaching, use novel people so the child distinguishes whom to respond to in this manner.
  • Identifying a stranger: Teach your child to identify strangers versus familiar people in photos and then in the presence of novel people and familiar people. Teach your child the types of interactions that are appropriate with familiar people and those that are not with a stranger.
  • Exiting a home/building during a fire alarm: Teach your child a place to exit to in the event of a fire alarm or home emergency (e.g., always to the driveway and wait in a specific spot).
  • Swimming: Teach your child to swim. Many local community centers have swim programs for children with disabilities.

Some Helpful Resources

Security (door guard alarms)

Identification and Registration (identification cards)

Location Systems/Devices


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