As a parent, a top priority is always to keep your children safe. It is important to teach about the many dangers and risks in the world. This is the same for families with an individual with ASD, however, because of the nature of the disability, teaching about hazardous situations can be more challenging.
A recent study conducted by the NAA Mortality & Risk in ASD Wandering/Elopement found almost one-third of the reported missing persons related to elopement from the years 2011 through to 2016 in the USA.
These, unfortunately, concluded in requiring serious medical attention or death.Another study by the American Journal of Public Health discovered that mortality in individuals with ASD is 35.8 years younger than the general population.
It is safe to say, that safety and precaution are more specific due to Autism or other neurological disabilities. In these cases, there are various, very specific precautions that must be taken, to ensure the safety of Autism individuals throughout their life. These measures will need to be taken at home, schools, in the public and sexual safety must be a concern as well.
Throughout this complete guide to keep your child with Autism safe, we will go over every safety measure that will need to be taken to help you create your safety plan accordingly.
Yes, there may be times in which this might get a little scary, however, parents should not live in fear. There are many tips, plans, and actions you can keep in mind to ensure your child’s safety.
Table of Contents
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An Overall Look Into the Symptoms of Autism Disorder
Autism is a complex neurobehavioral condition, which impairs social interaction, language development, and communication skills. Due to the range in symptoms, this disability is now called “Autism Spectrum Disorder”, within the spectrum, there are different ranges of levels of impairment. The most common (but not limited to) symptom in children on the spectrum is their inability/difficulty to communicate and understand what other people think, feel, or say. Children with ASD will find it difficult to express themselves through words, gestures, body language and touch. Also, they might be pained by sensory stimulation, such as sounds, touches, smells or sights that might seem normal for neurotypicals.
Because ASD is a spectrum, not all of the individuals with this disorder will experience the same symptoms in the same form or range. People diagnosed with ASD may share some symptoms, but not all will react the same or experience the same levels of impairment. The difficulty of recognizing danger or hazardous situations is ascribed to this difficulty. Neurologically, people on the spectrum process information in a different manner, this naturally makes them more vulnerable compared to neurotypical individuals.
Some of these symptoms include:
- Not aware of inappropriate situations
- No real fear of danger
- Repetitive behaviors or rituals
- Single interests in one or two subjects
- Avoids eye contact
- Socially incapable
- Difficulty in expressing needs
- Difficulty in interacting with others
- During melt-downs, it is possible they escape, wander/elope
On the positive side, with proper treatment, depending on the spectrum of autism of the child, there can be an improvement in many of their skills, including being able to get a job, go to school safely and use public transportation. However, as mentioned before, not all ASD people are the same. Some may even be nonverbal for most of their life.
Early intervention may improve learning, communication, and social skills as well as resolve any underlying brain development impairments. Therapy is a great way to help children affected by autism benefit from these interventions such as speech and occupational therapy.
Behaviors in Children or Adults with ASD:
- Experience trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own.
- Appear to be unaware of others communicating with them.
- Respond/react to other types of sounds around them.
- Have an unusual reaction to the way some things function: Such as smell, looks, sounds, etc.
- Progressively lose skills they once had.
Autism in Data and Numbers.
According to the CDC, the Autism Spectrum Disorder may appear in people of all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. 1 in 88 children have autism and boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to have this disability. And according to Autism Speaks, the prevalence of autism “the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States.”
- ⅓ of people on the spectrum are nonverbal.
- Some will even have an apparent insensitivity to pain.
- 31% of children on the spectrum have an intellectual disability, with significant challenges in day to day lives. 25% are in the borderline range.
- Half of these children wander/eloped from safety.
- ⅔ of children with ASD have been bullied between the ages of 6 and 15.
- 28% of 8-year-olds with ASD have self-injurious behaviors.
- Drowning is the leading cause of death in children with ASD, these types of accidents account for approximately 90% of deaths associated with wandering by teens of 14 or children younger.
By taking a look at some of these statistics, it is safe to state that many of the individuals (especially children) on the spectrum will have trouble recognizing danger or attributing fear or act with precaution towards certain situations. This includes street danger, wandering, bullying, sexual harassment, and even dangerous scenarios in the home.
Create a Safety Plan for your Child On the Spectrum
Creating a safety plan will oftentimes, if not all, involve your community, neighbors and loved ones. According to Autism Speaks, creating an autism safety project in your household can help be aware of the main dangers for you and your close friends, family and the overall community.
Tips on Creating a Safety Plan for your Child with Autism
- The community, neighborhood, faculty staff, school friends, and others will be a very important part of this safety plan. Anyone who comes into daily contact with your child should be aware of the diagnosis, as well as safety parameters to follow. All of these individuals will need to be aware of how to act upon a certain situation, as well as get in touch with parents and/or caretakers. This will include daycare providers, extended family, friends, and family.
- While being aware that most autism diagnosis will be given during the earliest stages of life, from that point forward, you will need to be aware of all the places and spaces your child will concur and how to keep them protected. Be sure to evaluate these areas for potential difficulties as well as communicate with adults and supervisors about your concerns. School will most likely be where he/she spends most of their time, so it is important to include an IEP with your school district.
- Make a list of all and any safety risks for your child on the spectrum. This will include, but not limited to, any dangerous foods, drowning, toxins, obstacles in the space, etc.
- Make sure your child is always identified. This can be a card, a locator, a clip. Anything you can use to identify your child if they were to wander off, which we will evaluate later on in this guide.
- Make sure you get in contact with your local police department and communicate your concerns and safety plan.
- Introduce intervention techniques to teach about safety. These tools include the following:
- Social stories
- Activity schedules
- Visual rules & labels
- Signs & charts
- Peer and adult modeling
- Showing consistent consequences for unsafe or inappropriate behavior.
5 Safety Key Points for Children with Autism
Depending on your child’s day-to-day life and considering any activities that include this. We will cover the 5 main areas in which your child will need to keep safe as well as tips to create the best safety plan possible. Remember, this is all about prevention.
Points 1Safety in Schools for Children with Autism
Because of the nature of this disability, a good safety plan needs to be in place, especially to provide to school faculty once your child becomes of age to attend school.
Here is some data by Masters in Special Education that you’ll be interested to know:
- 378,000 children are known to have autism in public schools.
- This results in almost 3 children per school in America
- According to ASAN Safety Surveys, 80% of self-advocates reported they had been bullied in school.
- 2% were bullied “all the time” (many in extreme forms)
It is important to create a behavioral analysis of your child before letting them off into the world. This consists of analyzing how your child reacts to sensory stimuli. For example, if they tend to wander off and not listen, or experience a melt-down. This will be useful to know when speaking to school representatives on behalf of your child’s ASD.
Tips on Safety for Children with ASD at School:
- Prior to the start of the school year, make sure you visit your child’s school and classrooms. Evaluate the building. Check if doors and windows lock and if there are nearby bodies of water. Will there be many sensory triggers? Where would your child go if they were to transition from one area to another without supervision?
- When the school year starts, make sure you take your child into the classroom, show them the facility and introduce them to faculty and staff.
- Schedule a meeting with the school faculty and let them know about risks and procedures. Make sure they always keep in contact with you. Hand out some copies with important information, detailing your concerns and safety procedures.
- Schedule an IEP meeting and follow up once the school year commences. You will need to keep being an active advocate for social skills, safety training, and learning goals according to the IEP process. Check out how to prepare here.
- Bullying will be an important part to discuss. Make sure you meet with the principal and ask about the school’s policy on bullying.
- Ask about the school’s use of restraint techniques for calming ASD students. As there have been cases in which this results in the death or injury because of being restrained.
The School Bus and Autism
If your child is a little older and you have decided they take the school bus, there have been some advances in terms of preparation for school bus drivers. There exists an Autism Treatment Network which created a model for autism-sensitivity and skills building program for school bus drivers. Ask if this is available at your school and be an advocate for these types of movements, or get in contact with them and let them know you’re interested in taking up this project at your school.
Either way, make sure you speak to the bus driver and let them know about your concerns, as well as communicate this to your school staff to help you keep an eye out for any riskful situations with transitioning from one area to another.
Points 2Safety Procedures at Home
Believe it or not, the home has the potential to be a very dangerous place for any young child if not appropriately prepared. However, this is even more dangerous when referring to a child on the spectrum. While a young neurotypical child learns how to cope and recognize danger due to mild injury or accidents, children with ASD, will most probably not recognize danger nor take the precautions necessary to avoid it. The following safety measures will need to be in place for a much prolonged period of time, differing from neurotypical children safety plans.
- According to a study from the NCBI made from 1999 through 2014, there have been a number of total deaths 1367 (1043 males and 324 females)
- Of all the recorded deaths 27,9% were attributed to injury. Of these 381 fatalities, 40.4% occurred in homes or residential institutions.
Checklist for Safety in the Home
This checklist will help you arrange your home appropriately to keep your child with autism as safe as possible.
1 Arrange the furniture accordingly.
You will need to appropriately arrange furniture in relation to the activities your child will be undertaking. This refers to any seated activities, walking around, clear areas, etc. For example, if they run out of a certain room via the same path, make sure to arrange doors, windows, and furniture so they are unable to get hurt when wandering. It is best, that at a young age, you restrict the need for constant movement and transitioning from one place to the other. If there are any furniture or shelves they can use to climb make sure you check these out as well.
If your child tends to “sweep” objects from their stored spaces, such as shelves, drawers or storage boxes, make sure the surfaces in your home are clear of objects that can potentially harm them.
Use barriers or safety gates to prevent accidents such as falling down the stairs. You should also restrict access into hazardous areas, such as your garage, basement, tool room, laundry room, etc.
2 Apply Locks & Alarms where Needed.
In autistic individuals, it is very common for them to wander/elope, which means leaving the home or safe space without supervision. It is of great importance to apply safety locks and alarms on any openings in the house (doors, windows, etc) accessible to them, in order to stop the child from wandering off. Alarms will report if the child ever attempts to leave.
There can be a big concern around children leaving their bedrooms during the night. This is why it is very important to take the necessary measures. It is also advisable you contact your town’s local police to make them aware of the propensity to elope your child may have. It will be a good idea to keep the Take Me Home program or other similar, on hand in case this were to happen.
You will also need to contact your neighbors and close community in look for support and awareness of risks. Consult the professionals that install alarms so that they can advise of legal or certain safety procedures of the measures you are interested in applying.
Make use of safety locks around the home to restrict access to objects that may result to be unsafe. In many cases, these locks are applied in bathrooms and kitchen storage spaces such as cabinets, drawers, etc.
3 Windows Access
Some children tend to escape their bedrooms by climbing out the windows. It is of great importance that you apply locks on any windows they might have access to. Go to your local hardware store to ask for specific child safety locks. Also, there are children on the spectrum who may tend to bash on windows, if this is occurring, make sure to replace panes with Plexiglass to prevent injuries.
4 Electrical Outlets
Just like with any small child, you will need to restrict access to, remove, or cover any accessible outlets and appliances. For this, you can apply plastic covers for any doors, faucets, oven, burners and other dangerous artifacts. You can also lock access to the laundry room or the washer and dryer.
Make sure that any wiring is stored away so that your child has no access to them. Autism individuals are often times curious in how things work, which can lead to unawareness of hazardous objects.
5 Lock Dangerous Items
Anything that can be hazardous must be locked away, especially anything that can be swallowed, for instance, cleaning chemicals, pesticides, and medication. This includes smaller items as well. Individuals with autism can confuse items with others, for example, a container with green detergent for a bottle of fruit juice, as well as pills.
Other items you need to lock away:
- Any sharp items
- Utensils (forks, knives, scissors, blades)
6 Label Items at Home
Labeling can be a game changer. In a well-labeled home, a child with ASD may better understand the functions of a certain item. This can be done with the use of symbolism, words, or photos. You can tag anything from rooms, items, closets, lose objects, etc. Anything that the child will interact with on a day-to-day basis. This will help them recognize what each item or space is for.
7 Everyday Items Organization
It is a good idea to make sure that functional items are stored in transparent storage bins so that the child visualizes and recognizes objects. Autistic individuals behave better in an organized, ordered and structured environment. This will reduce frustration levels and will help with behavior.
8 Watch out for Bath Items & Toys
Small objects can be hazardous for your autistic child. Make sure these are kept somewhere away from the tub and stored away. Bath items and products should also be placed in a separate bin. Replace any regular bottles to pump dispensers for safety from ingestion.
9 Fire Safety
Matches and lighters should never be in reach of children and must be stored away in a safe space at all times. Make sure you apply covers over oven knobs and stoves. Supervise your children closely whenever close to any of these objects or appliances.
Some of the fire departments in communities will provide stickers for children’s bedroom windows, these have the function to aware firefighters to locate a child’s bedroom. It might be difficult to teach a child on the spectrum about the dangers of fire, however, it is a possibility to express how to behave around fire and fire safety rules.
Develop flash cards or social stories (pictures, photos, words) about anything that has to do with fire: Drills, alarms, detectros, etc, as well as the contact with fire. Read this to your child on an everyday basis.
Make sure you use visuals, as in photos, which can explain about how to act in case of a fire. For example, an alarming “don’t touch the oven burners” would be a picture of the kitchen and burners and include a big, red signal that reads “STOP”.
10 Safety with Visitors and Unknown People
As with any child, teaching about safety rules and awareness to opening doors to unknown visitors, especially in the case they are left alone at home. This is especially important for a child with autism who may have speech impediments and lack social communication, or speech delay. Create social stories with pictures to explain the rules.
11 Hot Water Safety
In some cases, children with ASD may have certain sensory challenges, and this can mean they are insensitive to pain, did does not mean they do not get hurt though. They are at a higher risk of getting burned by hot water, for example. If you are are able to, turn down the temperature on your water heater. When getting older, teach them about the combination of both cold and hot water, this can be done with stickers, signs, and photos too. This goes for the shower as well as other faucets in the home.
12 Swimming Pools
Drowning is still a common accident amongst fatalities in individuals with ASD. It is important to fence it and make sure your gates are self-closing and lock up above the child’s head/reach. When in use, make sure any toys and other items that can spark curiosity are out of reach and stored away.
Ask your neighbors with swimming pools to follow safety tips and make them aware of your child’s risks if there were to be potential wandering. A California research team found that drowning is the first cause of death rate in individuals with ASD. Make sure you give water safety lessons and swimming lessons to children with autism.
Points 3Safety in Public
Safety in public will have to do with transportation, law enforcement, potential wandering/eloping, and many other points.
Some statistics from the National Autism Association:
- Approximately 48% of children on the spectrum attempt to elope a safe environment.
- 2 in 3 parents of elopers have experienced traffic injury “close call”.
- More than ⅓ of ASD children who wander are unable to communicate their name, address or phone number.
In a study by the IACC, it was found that 23 total fatal drownings occurred between 2000-2017. Wandering accounted for 73.9% of the incidents. Nearly half of the parents on this survey about elopement occurrence of around 1218 participants reported having attempted to elope with 26% to be missing long enough to be of worry or concern.
1 Contact your community’s Law Enforcement Officers.
It is very important to notify your local law enforcement about your child’s condition and potential wandering/elopement. Not only because they need to be aware of how to respond and/or find if they ever go missing, but to also know how to treat an individual that has wandered due to ASD.
During a Parent Survey, 50% to 60% of parents were at least somewhat concerned about their autistic child interacting with law enforcement. 30% to 40% stated that their child had or probably had interacted with the police at some point. Most stated the interaction went well (47.6%) and around 20-21% mentioned it went badly.
2 The Importance of Identification Options
Your child should count on identification in the event of wandering off, getting lost, or is incapable of expressing their identity effectively. Leaving home to be outside, might be a common activity amongst children with ASD as they enjoy being outdoors and in constant motion, this is a potential situation for them to leave home without supervision. Once outside of the home and/or safe spaces, they are vulnerable to the dangers of the streets, especially if unable to communicate how to go back home.
If your child tolerates a and identification accessory, make sure to purchase one at any drug store. However, many children on the spectrum will not be comfortable with wearing necklaces or bracelets due to their sensory sensibility. In this case, apply some labels onto each garment. Children can also be taught to provide identification from their personal belongings when not able to communicate information to someone else. Make sure these labels provide not only the name of the child but also your contact information. You can also make use of stickers to place on objects your child owns.
3 Talk about Boundaries
Make sure you use the social stories tools to create a sense of boundaries and constantly express to your child the importance of limits. Take a walk around the area, showing your child how far they are allowed to go. Even if they are to be supervised at all times.
4 Traffic Safety Rules.
It may be awhile until your child can feel safe enough to be able to walk around public spaces. However, teaching about traffic safety rules is important from the start. Cross a street, narrate the rules and have your child recite them as they cross the street. This will help them remember each time.
5 Public Safety Rules to Avoid Anxiety when Visiting New Places
- Make sure you use pictures to describe the new area you’re about to visit. This way your child will become familiar before actually going out.
- Tell social stories to describe any public place they will be visiting and relevant skills they will need to enjoy this outing. For example, if you’re going camping, you’d show a picture of the space, boundaries, items, and safety rules to avoid anxiety.
Points 4Safety Tips to Prevent Wandering/Elopement
You will need to make sure you watch your child’s behavioral patterns to determine two things:
- Which type of wandering describes your child (directed by goals, running, outside, escape)
- What triggers this behavior.
After this, it is best to develop and implement strategies to help your child deal with triggers and cope with this rather than escaping or wandering away. Make sure you include these triggers to your child’s IEP in the case this were to happen in a school environment.
Make use of social stories and review possible dangers and triggers with your child.
Some of the tips the Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response & Education provide are:
- Contact security companies for your home.
- Tracking device for your child.
- Identification must be worn at all times.
- Teach your child how to swim, however, this will not mean they are safe near the water.
- Introduce your neighbors.
- Provide key information handouts to everyone who will encounter them in their day-to-day routine.
An estimated 1 out of 59 individuals with ASD and 49% of children have the tendency to wander from safe spaces. Individuals on the spectrum are attracted to water but have little to no sense of the danger it represents.
By creating these boundaries and following these tips, you will be able to prevent your child from wandering. In the case that this ever happens, you and everyone around you will know how to proceed.
Points 5Sexual Safety for your Child with Autism
Sexual assault is real amongst individuals with neurological and intellectual disabilities. This is why it is important to be aware and teach your child on the spectrum, about the different signs of sexual abuse from the beginning. Sexual safety and learning must be a top priority for you as a parent or caregiver.
Sure, this can be a difficult topic to talk about, and some parents may think this isn’t a priority subject, with the assumption that this is unlikely to be a part of their lives. Sexuality education is, in fact, a very important topic. They need to be aware of the differences between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors when out and about.
It may not be such a good idea to presume this subject is overwhelming and should not be discussed. As mentioned before, it is important to have the conversation as early as possible.
The NPR ran a study and found that the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault among people with disorders:
- People with intellectual disabilities are sexually abused 7x higher than neurotypicals.
- They are more likely to be assaulted/abused by someone they know, this refers to a close family member, friend, etc.
- Crimes such as these go mostly unrecognized, unprosecuted and bear no consequences.
- Police and prosecutors are reluctant to take these cases as they are difficult to win in court.
1 Teach About Sexual Safety Key Points & Skills
Teach your child with ASD to focus on basic safety skills:
- Closing & locking private bathroom or public bathroom stall doors.
- Comprehending personal privacy. Who can and cannot help with personal care.
- Use direct body part identification, use adult terminology.
- The use of public restrooms individually.
- Restriction of nudity to a personal restroom, bedroom.
- About setting boundaries of personal space for self and others.
The best time to discuss sexual abuse is not later, it is now.
2 Prevent Sexual Abuse:
Check some of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network tips to find helpful information about protecting children from sexual abuse.
- Avoid nicknames or inaccurate terminology for private parts. Teach accurate names and significances. In the real world, accurate terminology is used. (Example: Penis instead of peepee)
- Focus on strangers, but also keep in mind that most children are abused by someone they know closely.
- Teach about body safety, what’s okay and not okay in terms of touching.
- Empower children. Let them know they have the right to take decisions over their bodies. Teach them it is ok to say NO when not wanting to be touched, even in non-sexual ways.
- Teach children that adults or older children do not, by any means ever need help with their private body parts (bathing, going to the restroom)
- Teach them to take care of their own private parts and not rely on other adults or older children for assistance.
- Teach about good secrets (surprises and fun things) and bad secrets (in which they need to keep a secret forever) and they need to find a way to express this.
- Trust yourself and your instincts. If you feel negatively towards someone when leaving your child alone with someone, don’t do it.
3 Signs Of Sexual Abuse In Autistic Children
Parents, caregivers, and friends need to stay aware and protect their loved ones, especially when there are signs that indicate victimization of potential abuse. Be aware that each person is unique and will show different signs in differing ways. However, it is best to pay attention to recognize these as soon as possible, in order to assist the victim with getting help and stopping the abuse.
These are the outlines of common behaviors in children who have experienced abuse by the American Psychological Association
- Experience insomnia, sleeping difficulties or more nightmares than usual.
- Sudden outbursts of anger.
- Depressive behavior or depression altogether.
- Struggle to walk or sit.
- Withdrawn, shy, introverted (more than usual) behavior.
- Pregnancy or contraction of venereal disease, particularly under age 14.
- Avoiding contact, escaping and running away.
- Refusal to change for gym or participate in physical activities.
- Regressive behaviors (return to thumb-sucking or bed-wetting.
- Refusal to be left on their own with a specific person or group of people.
- Sexual language, knowledge, behaviors that are unusual for their age.
When a child reports or shows signs of sexual abuse, take this very seriously.
For children with autism, the signs can manifest differently, make sure you find out. For more information read more.
4 Getting Help For Sexual Abuse:
Discovering someone you love has been a victim of sexual abuse can be disastrous. Once you are aware, find help and report the abuse.
If you suspect a child has been sexually abused, please contact:
- Childhelp® National Child Abuse Hotline at 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453)
- Or visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway Responding to Child Abuse & Neglect
- If you need emergency assistance, call 911
More information about sexual abuse on Autism Speaks
You are the Best Advocate of your Child’s Safety
This complete guide will help you teach, recognize and stay aware of dangers and hazardous, risky situations you may not have been aware of until this point. Remember, whether your child on the spectrum is at home, school, in public, or any other space, make sure they are equipped with the materials they need to overcome any situation.
Make sure they are knowledgable and skilled as necessary to stay as safe as possible. You are their best resource to keep them safe and protected.