If you’ve ever ‘lost’ your child in a department store or even your own neighborhood, you know the ice cold feeling of panic. Your heart races, palms sweat, and you run through a thousand negative scenarios in a matter of seconds. It’s every parents’ nightmare. Even when you’re reunited with your child and they’re safe and sound, it’s hard to shake the feelings of fear and anxiety when you consider what could have happened. These feelings are only magnified when you have a child who is on the autism spectrum or has other special needs.
Why Some Children Don’t Perceive Danger
When a person doesn’t respond to danger with fear, it means a small almond-shaped part of their brain called the amygdala is not correctly processing, identifying, and remembering what things are safe and what things are dangerous. When faced with danger, the amygdala’s job is to understand what the danger is and what to do about it. While known for determining danger levels, the amygdala has long been thought to play a part in autism as well. In addition, children with autism sometimes have difficulties with things like language skills, cause and effect, picturing scenarios that have not actually taken place, and interpreting feedback from their own bodies. Luckily, there are precautions you can take to keep your children safe.
Tips to Keep Your Kids Safe
If they’re prone to wandering: Studies have shown that kids who are on the autism spectrum are more likely to wander away from home, schools, and shopping center.
The most important thing to know when trying to locate a child who has wandered off is what type of wanderer your child is. Are they just trying to explore, or do they have a favorite place to go to? Is your child trying to get somewhere in particular, or are they running away from a potentially stressful situation?
Speak to your child and see if you can figure out what triggers their need to wander off. Then address the issue appropriately by helping your child deal with their triggers in a healthier way.
Additionally, consider having your child wear an ID necklace or bracelet that has your contact information on it. Find out if your local law enforcement agency participates in Project Lifesaver.
At Home: For most families, childproofing and hypervigilance are part of the toddler stage. Parents can often start breathing a bit more easily by the time their kids are ready for kindergarten. But if your child has no awareness of danger, you may never get to let your guard down. Your home should be one of the safest places for your child. There are a lot of precautions to consider when making your home a safe haven both when they’re young and as they get older.
Make sure you use brackets to secure furniture to walls, especially top-heavy items.
Make sure all cleaning products are locked away somewhere out of reach of children. Think about storing them in the garage.
Consider using key locks on your doors and setting up door alarms as a backup to prevent your child from leaving the home without you knowing. Always keep keys out of your child’s reach. If your child is prone to wandering, use a child locator.
Water can be a problem for children who have autism in more ways than one. First, it is very important to fence off any pools with self-closing gates and latches that are out of your child’s reach. Secondly, hot water can pose difficulties for children who have autism as they sometimes have trouble with their sensory perceptions, meaning they cannot feel temperatures as well. To counteract this, many parents simply turn down the temperature on the home’s hot water heater. In an effort to make your children more independent, teach them to turn both the hot and cold water on, or place a mark on faucet handles showing the point at which the water becomes too hot.
Fire safety is one of the most important things to practice with your kids. Consider buying an alarm that will let you record your voice, as to not scare your child when it goes off. Take your child to visit the fire station so they can get used to what the firemen would look like dressed up in an emergency situation.
Online: All children are vulnerable online, but kids with special needs are even more so. Children with no awareness of danger are unlikely to recognize inappropriate questions or behavior online.
Download games and other content onto computers and mobile devices and limit access to the Web. You can put devices into “airplane mode” or require a password to connect to WiFi or go online.
Keep computers in common areas of your home, where you can monitor online activity.
Use filters and parental controls to block unapproved websites and images.
Install child-friendly browsers that are specifically designed to let young children explore safely.
At School: It’s vital that your children are safe while they’re trying to learn, and they spend a considerable amount of their time at school.
Make sure you become familiar with your child’s school and classroom before school begins. See if they can visit beforehand too, to familiarize themselves with the environment and meet their teacher.
Meet with the principal and your child’s teacher and relay key information about your child.
Be an active parent in your child’s school community.
In Public: Going on an outing can be a dangerous thing for a child with autism, as public environments can be unpredictable.
Explain to your child what will happen while you’re on the outing. Create a schedule for the outing and show your child photos of the places you will see.
Practice traffic safety rules and possible scenarios like the checkout process at the store so your child knows what to expect.
Make sure to keep outings short and have reasonable expectations for your child’s behavior.
Things to Remember When Creating a Safety Plan
School staff, therapists, extended family members, and neighbors are all people to keep in mind when creating a safety plan for your child. Make sure the people who take care of your child are aware of your safety plan at all times. Discuss any concerns about your child's safety with them.
Visit places like school, friends’ houses, after-school facilities, and any other place your child will be regularly, and evaluate the safety of those places.
Be aware of your child’s top safety risks. Some kids are prone to wander off, while others are more likely to consume something dangerous. Make sure you know your child’s predispositions and practice safety skills involving those things.
Take a CPR and first aid class. In a worst-case scenario, seconds can make a huge difference.
Make sure your child has some form of identification on their person at all times, with contact names and numbers listed. Alternatively, purchase a child locator and clip it to your child’s clothes.
If your child is likely to need care and supervision as an adult, look into guardianship and other legal protections well before they turn 18.
To Sum It All Up
Being a parent of a child who has no awareness of danger can be a tough and sometimes scary job. Fortunately, there are many steps that can be taken to ensure your child’s safety. Measures taken at home, at school, and before trips out in public result in a better, safer time for you and your child. Having a safety plan in place is also a great way to be prepared for the unexpected on a day to day basis. It’s also an efficient way to keep friends, family, therapists, and anyone important in your child’s life informed on what they can do to keep your child as safe as possible.
Author: Jackie Nunes is a blogger at WonderMoms.org. She is a former pediatric nurse and now a full-time homeschool educator. She and her husband have three children. Their middle child suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 4. Now 11 years old, she is hearing impaired and uses a wheelchair. Jackie and two other moms created Wonder Moms as a project to share real talk, helpful information, and practical advice with parents of kids who have intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, autism, language and speech delays, deafness, chronic illness, and traumatic brain injury.