Parenting any child is a job filled with worry, but when your child has autism, that worry increases tenfold. It’s hard to think about what will happen if your child is in an emergency. How will they get the care that they need if you’re not there to help them? If your child is non-verbal, this can be even more difficult.
Though it’s important to teach safety skills to any child, it’s especially important to teach these skills to a child with autism. Children with autism may have a harder time communicating their needs to the people around them, especially if they’re in a stressful situation. That’s why you want to practice their safety skills often when they’re stress levels are low, so that if they get in a high-stress situation, they know what to do.
Teach Your Child to Look for Uniforms
If your child were to get lost in a grocery store or at an amusement park, it’s pivotal that they be able to locate an adult who could help them with the next step. Though in these situations any children may be susceptible to predators, children with autism may be especially vulnerable because they may not have trustworthy instincts about which adults to rely on.
Teach your child to look out for people in uniforms, such as security guards or store managers. If they get lost, be sure that they understand that they need to locate and stick with someone in a uniform until you come to get them. You can start small, helping them point out pictures in books or movies of people who can help them.
Try calling your local police station and seeing if they would be willing to have your child come down and meet a few of them. They may be willing to do so, and meeting police officers may help your child feel more comfortable reaching out to a person in uniform during an emergency.
Of course, it’s not just enough for your child to locate someone in a uniform in an emergency. You also want them to be able to ask for the help they need. If your child is verbal, you may be able to teach them a script that they can say. Keep it simple, such as, “I’m lost. I need help.” Once your child masters the basics, you can add more to their script, such as their name, address, and phone number.
Even non-verbal children can be taught to ask for the help they need. Try giving your child a personalized bracelet with their address and phone number on it. If they get lost, teach them to approach someone in a uniform and hold out their wrist.
Help Your Child Respond to Alarms
Sensory overload is the name of the game in children with autism, which can make things like fire alarms particularly stressful. Unfortunately, this isn’t a stressor you can, or should, avoid. Your child needs to learn what to do if the fire alarm goes off. Practice at home, including setting off your home’s fire alarm. It may upset them at first, but over time, practicing responding to a fire alarm can prevent them from panicking in an actual emergency.
Teach them to get out of the house if the fire alarm goes off. Find a safe spot for your family to meet up and teach them that if the fire alarm goes off, their job is to get to that spot and wait for you. Then give them opportunities to practice.
Teach Your Verbal Child to Call 911
If your child with autism is verbal, it’s important to teach them how to call 911 in an emergency. This includes letting them know where you keep your phone, helping them learn to dial the numbers, and helping them practice answering the questions police will ask.
Of course, it’s also important to discuss with your child what constitutes an emergency. You don’t want your child calling 911 because they lost their security blanket. Play games, naming a situation and letting your child tell you whether it’s an emergency or not an emergency, and give them rewards when they get the answer right.
If your child can read, consider posting a script with answers to basic questions, such as their address and phone number, on the fridge. This can give them something to refer to in an emergency and help them stay calm while speaking with the dispatcher.
Use Social Stories to Help Your Child
Children with autism need rules broken down for them into small, visual steps. Social stories, such as the ones posted on Living Well with Autism, can help you break down basic safety rules for your child. Read through these stories with your child often. Repetition is key when it comes to safety rules. After reading through a story, ask your child if they have any questions, and help them work through it.
When you come across these situations in real life, reiterate with your child that they’ve practiced the skill at home and give them the opportunity to respond correctly.