Safety First: Teaching Safety Skills to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Child holding father's hand
If you have a child with autism, you know that safety skills are a primary concern. Your child can encounter situations every day—like crossing the street—that might pose a risk, or they might engage in dangerous behaviors such as wandering. It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to teaching your children best practices to avoid or how to respond to unsafe situations, but the strategies below can be applied to many common safety concerns that arise. Think about applying these steps to the scenario of your child getting lost in a store.

1. Assess: What is the safety issue? What does your child know about the situation?
Your child tends to wander or get separated when you’re shopping in a large store and you want to create a plan for what to do in that situation. Right now he doesn’t know who to seek help from or what information to give him if he gets separated from you.

2. Plan: Create a strategy for dealing with the safety issue at hand if and when it occurs.
In case of separation, make sure your child knows his full name, parents’ names, home address, and telephone number. If your child has very limited language abilities, he should have an ID card or bracelet with him at all times. If he gets lost in a store, he should go to the person or people you have indicated are safe to go to for help—e.g. police or security.

3. Teach a plan: Talk to your child about how she should behave in the situation.
Speak to your child about what might happen if she gets separated from you at the store. Explain how to respond when people call her name and to listen for an announcement on the loudspeaker. Also make sure she knows who to ask for help and to stay in one place if she can’t find help. Many children with autism respond well to having concrete rules and steps to follow.

4. Model appropriate skills: Demonstrate skills or activities in action using social stories, pictures, videos, and other helpful teaching tools.
Show him pictures online of the types of people he should ask for help (e.g. police, firemen, security). You can demonstrate the steps for him at home: pretend you are a lost child and go through the steps. You can also find videos online that demonstrate what to do when lost in a store.

5. Practice: Practice putting your child in the situation—in a safe, controlled environment—and allow her to practice the new skills in many different natural settings.
When you’re at a store, have your child point out people who could be helpers. Have her repeat what she would say to someone if lost, such as “I can’t find my mom, can you help me?” Then set up a realistic drill. Give the security guard at a store you’re familiar with a heads up that you’ll be practicing. Stay within earshot of your child—but not with her—and have her go through the steps you’ve explained. Generalization doesn’t occur easily, so repeat in a variety of settings with different kinds of helpers to ensure she can demonstrate her skills in unfamiliar situations.

Reward/give feedback: Praise and reward your child when he gets the skill right. You can gradually phase out the reward system as the skill becomes well-learned.
Tell your child how well he followed the steps of your plan, provide additional teaching where necessary, and reward attempts at learning new safety skills.

The most important step is to practice, practice, practice! Not only will it help your child stay safe, but it will help your peace of mind to know he has the skills to manage the situation.

NYULMC-2011_2CP_RGB_300dpiFrom the Real Experts at NYU Langone Medical Center:

Rebecca Doggett, Ph.D. is a clinical assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Author: NYU Langone Medical Center

At the Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital of New York at NYU Langone, we understand that caring for infants, children, and teenagers is a special privilege. That’s why we partner with our young patients and their families to offer comprehensive inpatient and outpatient services and expertise. Our experts provide the best care possible for children with conditions ranging from minor illnesses to complex, more serious illnesses.