Safety Tips for Families | Organization for Autism Research

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Note to readers: In each issue of The OARacle, we provide a helpful resource on a topic of interest within the autism community. This month’s article focuses on safety tips for families affected by autism. Special thanks to Janet Fernandez, who works with the police forces in Sacramento, Calif. to investigate cases of abuse, for her contribution.

Protecting our children is the most important job of parents. For families of children with autism, this task is even more challenging because children with ASDs are often not as sophisticated as their age group peers. It is important for parents to always be aware of actions by others that may lead to abuse of their children as well as possible dangers to their children and know how to prepare them to avoid risky situations.



“Grooming” is a predatory behavior and a strong indicator of criminal activity. The practice consists of slowly “preparing” an individual to comply with acts that would be less agreeable or totally unacceptable under any other circumstances. Grooming is generally accompanied by coercion, manipulation, undue influence, and a series of small “rewards” or low-level threats. These threats, all too often, will eventually outweigh or replace the minor incentives, resulting in an ongoing pattern of victimization.

It is imperative for family to teach children to understand and recognize differences between “behavior modification techniques” (which may ultimately prove beneficial in general social and family interactions) and “grooming” (which leads to abuse and benefits only the abuser to any significant degree). These differences are often very subtle.

Power and control (and the isolation necessary to exert them effectively) are the tools used in grooming and exploitation. Power and control may translate into offering or giving small gifts or tokens (that may represent larger “social currency”) — sharing a soda, a meal, or even providing alcohol or illegal street drugs. These gifts are meant to produce a temporary feeling of increased self-worth and importance on a personal and social level, which is then often followed by and replaced with a demand for control, money, sex or personal property.

Unlike family, teachers, staff, and law enforcement, abusers don’t worry about disabilities or behavioral or cognitive deficits. They won’t ostracize our adolescent and adult children for “being childlike” or judge them as “unlikely to be interested in” illegal activities or illicit sexual acts because of their “mental age.” These are, in fact, the very attributes that will make them attractive, vulnerable targets for victimization.


Life is messy

As distasteful as we all find the “terrible two’s” and “teens” to be we must remember that those are critical times for developing personal empowerment skills. Those messy moments of trial and error (and the consequences that follow) become the “practice sessions” that will ultimately help our children or adult clients to form and implement personal values and social judgment.

Knowledge is power. Arm your children, your students, and your clients with information and personal power. This will ensure that they become less accepting of manipulation, control, and “bribery,” even if it makes them more aware of (and, perhaps, resistant to) behavior modification techniques. Allow them to be partners in developing appropriate family and social interactive communication and skills.



Our minor AND adult children may hear this word frequently, but they don’t – often enough – use it themselves very successfully. This little word (in addition to the word “yes”) is the strongest word in any vocabulary and forms the very cornerstone of a system of personal safety and protection. Use it. Teach it. Practice it. Accept it.

Recent budget cuts across the country will seriously impact staffing and services in your local area. It is more important than ever to report crimes in a timely manner and advocate for your child’s civil rights, personal dignity, and safety.

There are three populations recognized as being especially vulnerable:

  1. Children
  2. Dependent Adults and
  3. Elders

Crimes committed against these individuals carry enhanced penalties under the law and should be reported immediately to the proper authorities. If you would like to report an incident of suspected abuse against such an individual, you may contact the following:

  • 24-Hour Law Enforcement, Fire, & Ambulance – 911
  • Childhelp USA® National Child Abuse Hotline- 1-800-4-A-CHILD® (1-800-422-4453)
  • Poison Control – 800-876-4766

**To find an agency in your state that handles adult abuse reports or mental health crises, please visit your state government Web site.

This article was originally printed in the spring 2005 edition of the Families for Early Autism Treatment (FEAT) newsletter in Northern California. Permission to reprint the article was granted by FEAT.

Janet Fernandez is the parent of an adult son with developmental disabilities, and is a child advocate in Sacramento, California. She serves as a victim advocate and crime victims with disabilities specialist through the Sacramento Police Department. In this position, she assists law enforcement personnel in handling cases involving crime victims with disabilities. For the past 25 years, she has helped hundreds of parents at IEP meetings throughout California and has taught adults with disabilities about issues such as boundaries, personal safety and reproductive health.

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