March 18, 2022


Pro Tips

Pro Tips: Building Safety Skills

Pro Tips provided by Johanna Shaflucas M.S. Ed., BCBA, Clinical Coordinator of Behavioral Support; Gretchen Abdulla, Supervising Clinician-Behavior Support; Christine Percy, Supervising Clinician-Behavior Support; and Lori Simmons, Supervising Clinician-Behavior Support.

Teaching a child safety skills is important for any parent or caregiver, but it can be especially critical for anyone raising a child with autism. Below are some tips parents can work on with their child at home to help them stay safe.

1. Equip the home.

Elopement is a huge concern for many parents and caregivers of a child with autism. Consider installing door and window alarms in your home to alert you if they have been opened. Post visual cues that your child recognizes around the house to indicate what items or doors are unsafe or off limits.

Be mindful that fences don’t always work as a means of keeping a child with autism from wandering. If there’s something beyond the fence that they want to explore, such as a pool, a child will find a way to get over that fence. Reach out to a care coordinator to identify in-home supports to help with the teaching process.

2. Establish a schedule.

It’s important to teach a child with autism the difference between things that are completely off limits and things that they may not be able to do now but can do later. If they’re told, “No, never,” that child is going to want to do that activity or want that item even more.

Establish a schedule to let them know when an activity is going to happen, whether it’s playtime outside, taking a walk, or visiting a place in the community. Teach them how to communicate when they would like to leave to prevent situations where the child leaves without asking. Use reinforcement when the child requests something by saying things like, “I love that you asked. Yes, let’s go,” or, “I love that you asked. We need to wait.”  Show them the schedule that’s been established so they can see when they can or can’t do what they’ve requested.

3. Practice different situations.

Safety skills take a lot of time, practice, and reinforcement to develop. Repetition and reinforcement are key to helping a child with autism develop these skills.

Parents and caregivers should begin practicing in a controlled setting, such as a fenced-in backyard or another area where there’s less risk for elopement. Break everything down into small steps, set up the same scenario, and use the same language every time. For example, if you’re teaching your child to stop, start by having them walk less than a foot away, say their name and say, “Stop.” Practice this many times and make sure your child is stopping before increasing the distance.

Fire drills are also important to practice in the home. Teach your child what the fire alarm sounds like and what they need to do if they hear it. Establish a safe meeting place outside and show your child this is where they need to go when they hear the fire alarm.

4. Get to know your neighbors and community helpers.

Talk to your neighbors about any safety concerns you may have regarding your child, especially if they have a pool. Many children with autism are drawn to pools and bodies of water, which can create dangerous situations. Explain to your neighbors that your child is interested in their pool and might wander into their yard.

If your child does not know how to swim, let your neighbor know this and ask them to help your child or call 9-1-1 if they see them near or in the pool. Give them your contact information so they can get ahold of you should a situation arise.

Parents and caregivers can also familiarize their child with people in the community who are there to help if they get lost. These community helpers include police officers, firefighters, security guards, etc. Teaching them safety signs they might see around the community, like Stop, Poison, or No Swimming can also be helpful.

5. Children should carry a form of identification.

If a child engages in elopement behavior, make sure they carry some form of identification with them, whether it’s a wallet, a necklace, or ID tags for their shoes. Their name and the parents’ contact information should be included.

Project Lifesaver is another resource parents or caregivers can use. Through this program, children wear a wristband that does not easily come off. If they get lost or elope, the local police station can ping their location. Talk to a care coordinator to learn more about this program.