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Teaching Children with Autism about Safety

How can I help my 12-year-old daughter with autism be safe when she is out in public?

By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Director of Educational Services, National Autism Center

Parents of children with autism, like all parents, worry about their children’s safety. While parents do what they can to make their homes "child safe," addressing safety issues outside of the home can be much more challenging, particularly for the parents of children with autism.

One way parents can help their children be safe outside the home is to teach them skills that will help them avoid abuse and abduction. This is especially challenging for the parents of children with autism because it requires more intensive and structured teaching than for typically developing children.

Recent research by Ray Miltenberger and his colleagues has demonstrated the effectiveness of teaching children to respond to four types of "lures" that a stranger might use:

  1. a simple request ("please come with me");
  2. an authoritative statement ("your mother told me to pick you up");
  3. an appeal for assistance ("please help me look for my puppy"); and
  4. an offer of an incentive ("I have some candy in my car").
Appropriate responses would include saying "no," walking or running away from the person, and immediately telling an adult what happened.

Another important safety skill children need to learn is not to approach strangers. Again, this is more challenging for children with autism. These children need to be taught to talk only to people they know or to "community helpers" such police officers or store employees in uniform who are wearing easy-to-identify clothing.

A third safety skill is to teach children with autism what to do if they get lost. This can include initiating an interaction with a person in a group identified above. Also, if possible, teach the child to state his or her name, address, hometown, telephone number, and parents’ names, or to refer to an identification card he or she might carry in a pocket or wallet.

It is helpful to include these skills as learning objectives in a child’s individualized education program (IEP) document. Note that not all of the skills discussed above are suitable for every child. Considerations include the child’s age, level of language and social skills, and the number and type of other skills the child is working on at the same time.

It is important to develop a structured teaching procedure. Research shows positive effects of "behavioral skills training" that includes telling the child about the problem, describing the desired responses, modeling it for the child, and giving the child a chance to practice it in role play pretend situations. Research indicates even better effects when the children receive training in more realistic situations created by the teachers, such as in the playground or at a local supermarket.

For children with autism, each desired skill must be broken down into small steps taught one by one. Teachers should use clear instructions followed by lots of rewards and positive reinforcement for correct performance. If a child makes errors, he or she should receive consistent assistance and opportunities to practice again. Finally, data collection will determine if the child is making progress in learning these new skills. Most of these children will need many practice trials over many months of instruction.

The teaching procedures should also include methods to make it likely that the newly learned skills will occur in a variety of situations and maintain over time.

This topic has led me to reflect upon regular instructional practices in schools for children with autism. We teach children with autism to follow instructions. Teachers use lots of physical assistance such as hand-over-hand guidance, and we teach students not to resist our touch. Being compliant and not resisting touch help children with autism learn in classroom settings. However, overly compliant non-resistant behavior may be at odds with the safety skills we want to teach. The solution lies in teaching children to differentiate between those situations.

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