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In 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children assisted law enforcement and families with approximately 20,500 cases of missing children. Many families and caregivers try to protect their children from abduction by specifically teaching them skills like understanding the concept of strangers, warning signs of distrustful behavior, and what to do if they are approached by a stranger. The characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may make traditional teaching methods, like discussions, an ineffective strategy to teach these important safety skills.

Behavioral skills training is an effective way to teach a variety of skills to adults and children both with and without disabilities. Several studies have shown behavioral skills training is an effective method to teach children safety skills such as fire safety, gun safety, and saying no to a stranger who is trying to lure the child. Two recent studies, in 2010 and 2014, have extended that research and used behavioral skills training to teach abduction prevention skills to children with autism.

Behavioral Skills Training Steps
  1. Decide the goal you are trying to reach: What do you want to teach your child? How will you know if the child has learned the skill? Decide in advance what the answers to those questions are so you know if you have reached your goal. In the studies noted above, researchers Kristen Gunby, James Carr, Linda LeBlanc, and John Rapp taught the children to say “no” when asked to go somewhere by a stranger, immediately leave and run to a safe area, and then report the event to a familiar adult. Some children may first need to work on prerequisite skills like discriminating strangers or acquaintances from trusted family members or caregivers. If a child is not able to learn this just through discussion, it may be helpful to have children sort pictures of various adults into categories like stranger, acquaintance, or trusted family member.
  1. Provide instruction: This involves providing a written and/or verbal description of the targeted skill. This can also be an opportunity to provide a rationale as to why the targeted skills are important. In the research studies noted above, the researchers discussed potential ways an adult might get a child to leave an area and taught them to state the appropriate steps in avoiding a lure. However, this step could easily be modified based on the needs and comprehension level of the individual child. For example, instead of verbally stating the steps, the child could sequence photos representing the appropriate actions.
  1. Model the skill: The child is shown a model of the target behavior. This should be a correct model and include all components of the targeted skills. For example, the child would be shown a model of a stranger approaching a child and using a common lure or strategy to get the child to leave with them. It would also show the child saying no and immediately leaving the area. This can be done in person or on video. Videos can be a convenient way to model the skill because it can be watched repeatedly and the behavior will be modeled correctly each time. Video modeling can also be a way to promote generalization across environments as multiple scenarios can be shown. You can learn more about modeling and video modeling from Autism Focused Intervention Resources and Modules (AFIRM).
  1. Provide opportunities for practice: Children with autism often need more time and practice to acquire new skills. Give them multiple opportunities to practice new skills in a wide range of different scenarios in multiple environments and with different people to ensure generalization of the skills.
  1. Provide feedback: The adult should provide immediate praise for the behaviors that were performed correctly, and corrective feedback for the components that were performed incorrectly. It is important to provide more positive than corrective feedback. For some children, it may be helpful to incorporate additional reinforcers or rewards for correct completion of the targeted behaviors. You can also learn more about using reinforcement on the AFIRM website.
  1. Repeat steps four and five as necessary: It is likely that you will need to repeat steps four and five to ensure that your child has learned the skill and can use it when needed. Repeat as necessary until you have reached the goals you set in step one.

While it is difficult to determine prevalence, children with disabilities may be at a higher risk of victimization by predators than children without disabilities. That possible risk makes it even more important to use the most effective teaching strategies available when teaching safety skills. Behavioral skills training is an effective teaching strategy that has the potential to be a powerful tool in helping keep individuals with autism safe from harm.

Christine HollandChristine Holland is a board-certified behavior analyst who currently serves as director of education, training, and support at Commonwealth Autism, a Virginia nonprofit whose mission is to build the capacity of the autism and developmental disability service provider network through leadership, innovation, example, and collaboration. She has worked with individuals with autism and developmental delays since 1996, providing services to individuals and their families in home, school, and community settings. She regularly provides trainings on behavior analysis and developmental disabilities for service providers and caregivers.