When it comes to children, safety is number 1. For parents of children with autism, this can be an even bigger worry, as many children with autism may lack the skills required to protect themselves. This is particularly true if your child doesn’t talk, understand safe boundaries with people, or is a “runner”. Though it can be scary to think about, there are several things you can do to help keep your child safe.
If your child doesn’t know their basic information or can’t communicate it, an ID bracelet with their name and phone number may be a great idea. I worked with a child many years ago who had one since the time he was 2 years old. His was a nice, silver ID bracelet, so it didn’t stand out like a medical bracelet. In the event that a non-verbal child gets lost, the bracelet contains contact information. You may also think about adding something regarding your child’s diagnosis if you’re comfortable. This way, if someone is trying to communicate with your child, it may explain the lack of response.
Teach your child their info
If your child is verbal, teaching them the answers to some basic social information questions can be a great way to help protect your child. Questions such as, “What’s your name?”, “What’s your last name?” “What’s your phone number?” are key if someone were to find your child missing.
Teaching people safety
On the flip side, it’s also important to learn what not to share. Teaching your child about people safety can help them understand who to trust and who not to. Within this topic, you may want to teach a few different things. Learning about community helpers is a place to start, so your child knows that a policeman, for instance, can help them if they’re lost.
Another important piece to this is includes differentiating between family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. A great way to think about this is in terms of circles of safety (see below). Teaching your child who belongs in what ring, as well as what that means in terms of what’s appropriate can help protect them from predators, as well as create social boundaries. For instance, you may ask, “Is mom a friend, stranger, or family member?” when your child says family member, you’d write that in the middle circle. You might also ask things like, “is it okay to kiss mom?” or “is it okay to hug a stranger?” Once your child has the basics down, you can practice through role play or creating real-life scenarios.
Teaching street/community safety
Because elopement, or running away, is so common in children with autism, teaching your child the skills necessary to stay safe in public is important. Learning to stay with you or another trusted adult is a critical skill. You may need to build up to this in small steps. Depending on your child’s current skill level, this may progress through steps like:
- Holding your hand
- Walking next to you in house
- Walking next to you in backyard
- Walking next to you on neighborhood sidewalk
- Walking next to you on busier street or in parking lot
Finally, in line with the ID bracelet, it may be helpful to have some kind of letter written up that you can keep with your child, explaining his or her diagnosis. Not only including the actual diagnosis, but what that could mean, such as “He/She may not answer you” or “does not like to be touched”. This can help prevent misunderstandings and potential danger even from people trying to help.
Some of these skills are more involved than others. If you aren’t currently working on them or they aren’t in your child’s repertoire, it may be worth talking to your service provider about helping to teach those skills. Because children with autism often learn differently than typically developing children, it will likely take some extra work, but keeping your child safe and alleviating some of your worry makes the work well worth it.