Most parents place their children’s safety as a top priority as a rule. But for parents of autistic kids, the reality is that it can be even more difficult to keep your children safe from themselves and others simply because of the nature of their disorder. However, parents of autistic children should not live in constant fear: there are tips parents and caregivers of autistic kids can follow to make sure they stay safe.
Children with ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) share some symptoms, such as:
What causes Autism?
Scientists do not yet know the cause of ASDs. According to the CDC, ASDs occur in people of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. While it is estimated that autism affects 1 in 88 children, boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to be affected by autism; in fact, the number of boys affected by autism is 1 in 54, compared to 1 in 252 girls. And, Autism Speaks points out that the prevalence of autism is not just growing: it is “the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States.”
Keeping all children safe is important. But, keeping autistic children safe becomes even more of a priority because of their social, communication, and behavioral challenges.
Characteristics of Autism
Image via Autism Society
Tips for Creating a Safety Plan
Autism Speaks recommends that parents with autistic children create safety plans, and there are some basic tips to keep in mind when creating those plans for your autistic child.
Include family and community members who come into daily contact with the autistic child. Keep in mind school personnel, daycare providers, neighbors, extended family, etc. Make sure you have contacted each person and discussed your most pressing concerns about your child’s safety.
Think about all of the places in which your child needs to be protected. This probably includes home, school, friends’ homes, community centers, etc. Then, be sure to evaluate them for safety and to put preventative measures into place in each area. It is especially important to remember to include safety skills in your child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) in your school district.
Consider the top safety risks for autistic individuals: wandering, pica, drowning, and household toxins. Take the necessary precautions for safeguarding your child against these safety risks and practice safety skills with your child other family members.
Give your child a form of identification with contact names and numbers listed. Make sure your child always wears or carries this identification, especially because wandering could be a concern. Or, purchase a child locator and clip it to your child’s shoe, belt, etc.
Contact your local communications center, police department, and/or 911 call center to communicate your concerns and safety plan with the appropriate officials. Remember, you are your child’s best safety advocate.
Safety at Home
The home can be a very dangerous place for any young child, but it can be even more dangerous for your autistic child. The difference is that the safety measures and precautions most parents implement for very young children may need to be in place for a much longer period of time for autistic children. Consider this checklist to keep your autistic child safe at home:
image via B92
Furniture : Secure especially top-heavy furniture to the wall with furniture brackets or safety straps.
- Place televisions on units that are specifically designed to hold them, not unstable cabinets or tables and make sure they’re low to the ground and pushed back as far to the back of the stand as possible.
- Install straps that anchor the unit on the stand or attach them to the wall to keep them stable.
- Look for furniture with a solid base and wide-legs to keep them well balanced.
- Teach your kids never to climb on drawers, never to hang on drawers and also never open two drawers at one time.
- Avoid buying glass tables as injuries usually occur when kids sit or fall on glass tables.
- To help prevent computer-related injuries, it advice to:
- Place the computer desk away from walkways and against a wall;
- Secure cords, so that they’re of the way of your feet;
- Move the computer away from the edges of desks and out of the reach of young children.
Cleaning products : All cleaning products should be locked in a safe location.
- You may want to put them in a locked area in the garage or basement, so they are not in the main living space of your home.
- Install child-proof latches on under-sink cabinets in the kitchen and bathroom. Even if cleaning materials are no longer stored there, chemical smells may linger and could be dangerous to a child if they play under sinks.
- Store laundry products on high shelves because many detergents can cause rashes or itching on a child’s sensitive skin.
- Never leave a bottle or container of cleaning supplies open and unattended. Always close and put away the cleaning supply if you are interrupted. You do not want any temptation sitting around that may harm your child.
- When cleaning, take only the proper amount you need from the container, seal the container back up and store the container away immediately.
- Use the proper equipment for handling the cleaning supply material, as recommended on the label. If the label says wear protective gear, gloves or goggles, do so to reduce harm to yourself and family.
- When you are done cleaning, properly dispose of paper towels and rags that touched the cleaning chemicals.
Freezers : If you own a chest-style freezer, keep it locked at all times.
- Storing the key in a safe place where your child cannot access it is a good idea.
Doors : Key locks may be enough for some children affected by autism, but you may want to use door alarms to prevent your child from leaving your home without your knowledge.
- Again, remember to keep your keys in a place out of your child’s reach.
- If your child has been known to wander (see the section on wandering below), you should use a child locator.
- There are several types available, especially online, but any you choose would help ease your mind about your wandering child.
Visitors : As with any child, you should teach your autistic child the safety rules about opening the door to visitors, especially if he is home alone.
- The old safety rule of not opening the door to anyone when home alone is especially important for an autistic child who has a severe language or speech delay or who is completely nonverbal.
- One way to communicate this rule to your autistic child is to create a social storybook with pictures to help explain the rules.
Hot water : Sometimes autistic children struggle with sensory challenges, so they may be more at risk for getting burned by hot water simply because they cannot feel hot and cold.
- One simple solution is to turn down the temperature on your hot water heater.
- If you have an older autistic child, you may want to practice turning on the hot water with the cold water.
- You may even put stickers on the hot water knob to remind your child that it is a potential danger to him. Don’t forget to do this in the shower as well as on your sink faucets.
Fire : As with all children, practicing for a house fire is an important safety measure. Some autistic children may become frightened of the loud alarms in your home, so you may want to purchase a smoke detector that records your voice rather than a traditional one.
- Another fire safety tip is to take your child to your local fire department so he can become familiar with the firemen and the gear they wear when they enter your home because some autistic children handle stressful situations better when they have experience with them beforehand, in a calmer setting.
Swimming Pools : If you own a pool, fence it in and make sure your gates are self-closing and latch above your child’s reach.
- Keep all pool toys and other interesting items out of the pool area when they are not being used.
- Ask your neighbors with swimming pools to follow these safety tips and make them aware of your child’s potential for wandering.
- Prior to the Danish study on mortality rates in people affected by ASDs, a California research team pointed to drowning as the cause of the elevated death rate of individuals diagnosed with an ASD, so swimming pool and water safety lessons are crucial for autistic children.
Autistic Kids Wandering Away from Home
A recent study funded by Autism Speaks, through its support of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), an online project bringing together families affected by autism, and published in the journal Pediatrics shows that children with ASDs wander away from home, stores, and school more often than unaffected children. Through the use of parent surveys, researchers found that nearly half of autistic children attempt to wander or run from a safe, supervised place, and more than half of these wandering children go missing long enough to cause worry. Of the children who caused worry, 65% of the incidents involved a close call with traffic, and 32% involved near drowning.
Overall, the occurrences of wandering increased with the severity of the ASD, and the children who wandered most commonly left their own homes or ones they were visiting. Most parents listed the main reason for their child’s wandering as being their enjoyment of running and exploring, but other reasons included visiting a favorite place or escaping a stressful situation or an uncomfortable sensory stimuli. The study highlighted the need for parents to develop safety plans with their families, teachers, police, and other community members to protect autistic children who wander and to be able to locate them.
How to Prevent Wandering
The National Autism Association recommends that parents and caregivers use the following tips to help prevent wandering by understanding wandering patterns and eliminating triggers in children with an ASD:
- Determine which type of wandering best describes your child (is he directed by goals, is he a sudden runner, etc.).
- Recognize what triggers the wandering incidents.
- If it is a goal, allow the child to explore the goal in a safe and supervised manner (for example, if the child’s goal is to get to water, schedule a time for water play each day).
- If it is to escape something, address the issue (for example, there may be too much noise at a certain time of day that the child is trying to get away from).
- Develop and implement strategies to help your child deal with his triggers in a way that helps him to cope with the trigger rather than running away.
- Include known triggers in your child’s IEP so that he may work on calming techniques with the appropriate school personnel.
- Acquire appropriate social stories and review them with your child.
- Share your child’s goal, fascination, or need to escape with all people who are involved in your child’s daily routine to aid them in preventing your child from wandering.
The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration is a working group of six national non-profit autism organizations whose mission is to prevent autism-related wandering incidents and deaths. From their website come the following crisis prevention tips:
- Promote safety and prevention: Contact a professional locksmith, security company, or home improvement professional to promote safety and prevention in your home.
- Tracking device: Get a tracking device for your autistic child and check with local law enforcement for Project Lifesaver or LoJack SafetyNet services.
- Custom ID Bracelet: Have your child wear an ID bracelet or necklace that includes your name, telephone number, and other important information. If your autistic child will not wear a bracelet or necklace, consider a temporary tattoo.
- Teach Him/Her to Swim: Teach your child to swim, but remember that teaching a child to swim does not mean he is safe in or near water.
- Alert your neighbors.: Introduce your neighbors to your autistic child and provide a photograph with your name, address, and phone number so they can call you immediately if they see your child outside of your home.
- Inform First Responders in Your Area: Provide first responders with key information on handouts (you should distribute these to your family, neighbors, friends, and coworkers as well): include the name, age, and physical description of your autistic child as well as his favorite song, toy, or character so the first responders are able to communicate with and calm your child more easily.