Keeping Your Child Safe
Tags: News and Advice; Resource Guide
by Bernadette Murphy Bentley, MPA
The often carefree days of summer present additional challenges for parents of kids with ASDs.
The National Autism Association recently reported that children with ASDs living in parts of the US that experience greater seasonal variations -like the Northeast- are at greater risk in the summer than those in other areas.
The report notes that changes that come with warm weather— open doors and windows, screen doors and cooling units, outdoor events, and new routines and activities in new locations with different caretakers increase safety risk.
Here are some suggestions to keep your child safe all year long.
The Interactive Autism Network reports that half the children with ASDs ages 4-10 have tried to "elope," the technical term for wandering or running away. Of these, nearly half succeeded and were missing long enough to cause parents significant concern about their safety and many resulted in calling the police. Further, two out of three reported their wandering child had a “close call” with traffic injury, and almost a third reported a “close call” with drowning.
"12 Ways to Prevent, and Respond to ASD Wandering," offers an easy-to-understand guide for anyone who cares for children with ASDs, including parents/guardians, friends/family, teachers/therapists, camp counselors and others. It is available for free online from the National Autism Association as part of its Autism & Safety Initiative.
Some of the techniques recommended in the guide to prevent wandering include:
Understand Wandering Patterns and Eliminate Triggers discusses how to determine the type of wandering your child might do and how to address it, along with social story templates that can be individualized for your child.
Teach Your Child About Wandering Safety covers strategies you can use for children with differing language capacities. It also includes a link to stop signs you can print and put on any possible exit your child might use, as a visual reminder that it's not safe to leave.
- Secure Your Home or Whatever Location Your Child is In This means marking and or securing all exits, including:
- pet doors
- windows without safety guards
- an unfenced yard
- loose-fitting fences/doors/gates/windows that could yield to pressure
- tears in window screens or screen doors that kids could make bigger and get out
items near fences that a child could climb on to get over
Do not underestimate your child's ability to figure out your locking system. Ask a locksmith or a security professional for ideas individualized to your situation. If your windows do not have the built-in safety lock, be sure to add them. Consider either a full-house security system or alarms that activate when doors and windows are opened.
Protection in Case of Wandering
The "12 Ways to Prevent, and Respond to, ASD Wandering" guide also provides advice on protecting children in the event that they do wander.
You might consider a Personal Locator in the event that your child does wander. A variety of tracking devices listed in the guide but the Doug Flutie Foundation, in partnership with LoJack SafetyNet, offers free activation and free service for a year for families who meet income guidelines through the Flutie Family Safe & Secure Project.
Technology for Autism Now (TAN), has a similar program for residents of Suffolk County.
Note: Lojack SafetyNet was previously only available in certain parts of Massachusetts but it is now available state-wide. Some cities/towns have funding available for families who qualify so be sure to ask!
The guide recommends a medical ID bracelet with the parents' names and phone number, along with information about the child's communication method (e.g., "nonverbal but responds to visual pictures") and likes/dislikes (e.g., "soft music soothes him but touch scares him.") Other products include shoe tags, military-style tags, ID cards kept in a pocket or sewn into clothes or attached to a belt, zipper or lanyard, or even temporary tattoos with your contact information.
Alert Your Neighbors The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration, says that, "More often than not, it’s a member of the public who finds a missing person with autism, and your neighbors could be guardian angels in emergency situations."
Tell your neighbors about your child, give them your phone number and information about wandering, and ask them to call if they ever see your child alone outside.
AWAARE also recommends that you give your local emergency personnel information of your child by filling in the "Autism Elopement Alert Form" and encourages every family to prepare a "Family Wandering Emergency Plan" in case wandering does occur.
Drowning accounts for 91 percent of accidental deaths of children with ASDs in the US. Here's what you can do to keep your child safe.
1. Enroll Your Child in Swimming Lessons
Some kids with ASDs absolutely love the water but for others, it can be frightening. Parents often get frustrated after repeated attempts to get reluctant children into the water, but don't give up! The ability to swim is one of the most important skills for any child to learn.
The National Autism Association has compiled a list of YMCAs by state, including 21 in Massachusetts, that provide special needs swimming lessons. If your YMCA is not listed, call them to see if they provide special needs swim lessons.
Here are some other Massachusetts organizations that provide swimming classes for children with autism and other special needs:
- Autism Alliance of Metrowest, swim lesson sessions three times a year
- CHD Adaptive Aquatics, Springfield
- Kids in Disability Sports (KIDS), Inc. swimming lessons, Lowell
Contact your local Massachusetts autism support center to inquire about autism-specific swimming lessons in your area. There are also other organizations that provide autism-friendly swim times but not lessons, including family social swims offered by TILL.
2. Even if your child can swim, never let him or her in the water—or near the water—without adult supervision
The AAP "does not recommend swimming classes as the primary means of drowning prevention" and says that parents should be within arm's reach of all children under age five at all times when they are in the water.
Be extra careful when you are going on an outing around an unfamiliar body of water with a lot of people—this type of situation can be extremely dangerous for a child who wanders. Also, if you own a pool or if your child will be around a pool, the AAP has prepared a list of rules for pool safety
3. Teach your child about water safety
Although pools and the beach are the biggest worry for most parents and the ones they focus on the most with their children, kids can drown in a very small amount of water. Tell your child to never go near any type of water without an adult. Use visuals and social stories to reinforce the message.
"Water Safety: The Ultimate Life Skill" was written by an autism behavioral specialist outlines important steps to teach your child about water.
This article provides an overview to help you keep your child safe from wandering and drowning, but is not an exhaustive guide. Please be sure to read the information provided in the links throughout the article, and also check out the May Institute's article, "Summer Safety Tips for Parents of Children with Autism."