Kitchen has never been a safe place for children. But it becomes an even dangerous place if there are children who are autistic at home. Caring for children with autism requires a very special focus on their safety. And nothing can pose more possibilities of hurt and injury than an unplanned and un-organised kitchen. With a little preparation, a kitchen can be modified so that it becomes safe and harmless for children with autism.
Why is kitchen safety important for children with Autism?
As per the centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children under the age of 8 years are autistic with the numbers being much higher for boys than girls where for every 42 boys, 1 is autistic. For girls this number is 1 in 189. Knowing that a child is autistic is a big shock for parents. But this knowledge adds the responsibility of ensuring safety for the child at home specially in kitchen. Some of the common signs of autism in children are
- Rocking back and forth
- Spinning in a circle
- Finger flicking
- Head banging
- Staring at lights
- Flicking light switches on and off
- Repeating words or noises
- Spinning objects
- Wheel spinning
Owing to these repeated behaviours, a child can pick up unattended kitchenware and might begin playing with them which can prove to be dangerous. Non-responsiveness to voices and sounds can make it even more difficult to stop them or for them to understand the danger an instrument from kitchen might pose, more importantly electronic instruments used in kitchen for everyday cooking. Hence arranging the kitchen in a manner that will keep the child away from such things is important.
Modifications in kitchen to make it safe:
Since is a kitchen is home to innumerable objects, there are many modifications that need to be made to the kitchen to make it completely safe for a child with autism. However, different autistic children have different behavioural patterns. For someone wondering where the changes in the kitchen should be started, it is best to understand what poses the maximum threat to the child in the kitchen based on the behavioural pattern of the child.
Children who are keenly interested in lights
Children with autism tend to develop attraction towards certain things like light and constantly stare at them and try to reach out to them and grab them.
Lighting in the kitchen – Autistic children who develop a fascination for lights tend to stare at the electric bulbs and other decorative lights. While these lights are generally positioned beyond the reach of children, they do not pose much harm. It is still advisable to have the lights covered with heat resistant fibres so that if a child does manage to touch them, he does not get burnt or get a shock. Also, keeping these lights mild will prevent harm to the eyes of the child due to constant staring.
Lights from gas stove: A gas stove is the biggest attraction to such children who get drawn towards it due to the lights it emits when on. It is hence necessary to move the gas stove top as high as possible to avoid the child from being able to reach it. If possible, replace the gas stoves for induction cooktop which does not emit any lights that might attract the child’s attention. Again make sure to have even the induction stove moved high.
Other light emitting devices: Other light emitting devices like the oven or even the refrigerator can keep the child hung around them. Hence position these kitchen electronics as far away from the reach of children as possible. Built in wall ovens can remain inconspicuous to the eyes of the child and locked refrigerator door can avoid children from wanting to step into it.
Children attracted to heat
Some autistic children find heating instruments amusing and end up reaching out for them despite all warnings. Some modifications for such children include –
Building a barricade: While it might sound silly, building a small barricade around your stove can keep your child away from it.
Separate cooling area for hot instruments: After usage, instruments such as kettles, toasters etc remain warm for some time. A separate area that is at a height and away from reach of child can be allocated for cooling where all hot instruments and utensils can be left to cool. They can later be stored in cabinets.
Hot water taps in kitchen : If there are hot water taps in kitchen, having a second level of control can help prevent the child from burning himself. Avoid using a tap with flick mixer as it is very easy to operate for the child.
Children who tend to throw/scatter things
Autistic children also throw tantrums and can end up hurting themselves in the process. If the child tends to throw or scatter things, some changes that can be made to the kitchen are –
(i) Replace cutlery with ones made from plastic or fibre – having plates and utensils of glass or material that can shatter and break can lead to these pieces hurting the child. They can also hurt others in the kitchen. Hence choose dinner sets made of material that does not break and is light weight.
(ii) Keep the kitchen as clean as possible – ensure that there are no loosely left items lying around in the kitchen that the child can easily grab and throw. Keep everything locked in cupboards and cabinets and take it out only while using.
(iii) Hide away all sharp objects – work in kitchen cannot be completed without knives but knives pose the greatest threat to the safety of the child. Hence all kinds of sharp objects need to be hidden away from the child so that the child does not find them even as a matter of chance.
Taking care of a child with autism can be challenging and requires patience. But by keen observation of the child and the kitchen surrounding, all areas that can harm the child can be identified. The above measures can also help make kitchen a much safer place for the child. Some of them are more expensive and some are less, but nothing is more important than the safety of the child.
Invest in durability. If your child is prone to tantrums, aggressive outbursts, or exploratory behavior, this would be a wise choice for anything that appears in your kitchen. Consider options such as a cast iron sink or laminate countertops. Windows can be replaced with plexiglass, Lexan, tempered glass, or other alternatives.
Store away all food item in locked containers : The idea here is not to take away the liberty of eating from the child but to protect him from eating anything unattended that can lead to chocking, food poisoning etc.
Have all the kitchen cabinets with locks or child proof magnets: While one might keep everything away from the child in cabinets, it’s of no use if the cabinets are not locked. The child can open them anytime! Hence makes sure that there are strong magnets or locks that can prevent the child from opening them.
Move kitchen cleaning supplies away : generally everybody keeps kitchen cleaning supplies in kitchen but since a child sees kitchen as the place where everything to eat comes from, they are prone to try eating even the cleaners. Hence it is a great idea to move the cleaners outside of the kitchen and keep them in lock taking them out only when needed.
Cover the plug points : If the child tends to put fingers inside the plug points, it is a good idea to keep them covered. If possible, keeping the main switch off for electric supply to the kitchen can also help.
Arrange the kitchen furniture in a way that makes sense. This can mean a number of different things. However, try to keep surfaces free of clutter if your child is a sweeper. Rearrange your furniture and move it away from shelves or other things that can be climbed.
If your child is a wanderer, limit access to entrances and exits. Ideally, there should be only one entrance to the kitchen that you should carefully monitor. If your child frequently runs out of the room on a predictable path, then change the layout so it is not conducive to their escape. Keep any doors closed, and make use of gates or barriers as you would in other rooms of the house.
Label things to explain their function or enforce rules. Experience has shown that images such as a STOP sign or a “NO” label work well. Place these on doors that are not to be opened or things that are not to be touched, such as stove burners or containers that hold hazardous materials.
Consistency is key: Avoid changing where they sit or what they sit on without warning, because something you could easily adapt to is something that could be overwhelming for them.
Make sure there is proper seating: Locate their chair against the wall or in a corner if they are a wanderer so they cannot dart away.
Chairs with arms can help prevent behavioral problems: If your child struggles with aggression, this type of seating will impede knocking over furniture or throwing objects. It will also help stress good posture and facilitate appropriate eating behaviors.
Tie utensils to the chair or table leg with nylon string: Someone could easily be injured if your child decides to hurl their fork across the room. If this doesn’t seem like the best solution, or if the utensils have a way of boomeranging back at your child, replace them with hard plastic utensils.
Attach dishes to the table : If your child has a tendency of sweeping things off of surfaces, secure any plates, bowls, or cups with Velcro. You could also consider replacing glass dishes with those made of plastic or rubber to prevent breaking.
Appliances & Gadgets
Use plastic knob covers: These can be fitted onto doors, faucets, ranges, and cooktops. This will prevent opening doors, turning on the sink and wasting water, or the changing of heating settings on your oven or burners.
Buy appliances with safety features: There are numerous major appliances on the market that have been built with kitchen safety in mind. These have features such as child locks or hidden controls. When you find yourself shopping for a new cooktop, range, microwave, or dishwasher, keep these features in mind.
Consider getting an induction cooktop: Induction cooktops are the most safety-conscious choice for your kitchen. Because heating is done by electromagnetic induction, touching the cooktop surface will only warm up your magnetic pots and pans, not your child's fingertips.
Don’t leave small appliances out on countertops: Tuck them away in cabinets when they are not in use. Or you can store things like toasters under covers.
Leave appliances unplugged: Not only is this a good idea for avoiding trouble, but it also adds to the overall energy efficiency of your house.
Make sure the kitchen has a smoke alarm: In case of an emergency, a smoke alarm should be installed in your kitchen so that your local firefighters can be notified immediately when there's a problem.
Secure sharp items you may have in your kitchen: Beyond knives, this can also mean scissors and any other tools you commonly store in your kitchen.
Put away any foods that could pose a problem: For example, fruits with pits such as peaches are a choking hazard. It is also smart to hide away any foods that could aggravate your child's allergies.
Keep lighters or matches locked up: Reaching toward the stove burners isn't the only way your child could potentially burn themselves. Anything that starts a fire should never be left out in the open.
Place items out of reach on shelves or bins: For their childhood, at least, you have the advantage of height on your side, so store items well beyond their grasp.
Store away as much as possible in cupboards or the pantry: Then secure the doors of these places depending on your level of need.