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Teaching Safety Skills to Children With Autism

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Teaching safety skills to children with autism is imperative in our rapidly changing, often unsafe world. Most children have an innate sense of danger that keeps them relatively safe. My kid with autism lacks any sense of danger, which inherently puts him in more danger than his sister.

As with all skills you teach your child with autism, you have to approach it from a developmental standpoint. What you cannot do is neglect to teach this skill, regardless of the age of the person with autism.

When Logan was much younger, he was a “bolter.” A bolter is a person who elopes, who takes off in a parking lot or somewhere else. When he saw something he liked, he would “bolt” from us to get to it. It didn’t matter that it was across a busy highway or in a parking lot full of cars. He had no sense of danger, so he merely went to where he wanted to go.

This meant the child locks were always on in the car regardless of if he was in it.  The car door wasn’t opened without immediately grabbing his hand. One hand was on him while unbuckling the car seat with the other. This meant I couldn’t go anywhere without another adult after Madison was born. I simply could not carry her in her car seat while keeping track of him. I wasn’t willing to risk it at any time.

We didn’t attend many, if any, outdoor social events when Logan was a wee lad as he couldn’t handle them from a sensory standpoint. When we did manage to get out in public for an outing, we played tag. I would be nearby and watch Logan for a time, then tag Michael to switch. There was never a time when one of us did not have our eyes on him as well as be close enough to grab at least an arm should he bolt.

We did this for so long that it’s simply habit for us even now that Logan is an adult. He certainly hasn’t bolted in years. He has such a good grip on safety that we often have to chide him for being too cautious. He’s super cautious in everything, even driving.

Let’s talk about how we got from bolter to super cautious. It’s more of a progression of skills learned than an overnight miracle. One skill builds on another until it all clicks into place.

Safety skills are much higher-level thinking skills. You have to fill in the developmental gaps from the early years before you can ask this skill of your child.  The brain has to make new synapses in the missing skills before the higher ones can be accessed.

The earlier skills needed, first and foremost, are referencing Mom and Dad, stopping when Mom/Dad stops, slowing down in co-regulation/coordination with Mom/Dad, and/or pausing with them.

Why is this important for teaching safety? When your child stays with you automatically, you can keep them safe as well as teach them. Social skills stories aren’t going to work in this case as you have no way to predict what other people are going to do. It’s not about remembering the rules. It’s multitasking and processing all the non-verbal information happening at one time.

An early step a child has to learn is co-regulating and coordinating their self with what is happening around them. The safety rule is the summary of all of that, but it is much less about the rule than it is about the non-verbal communication. You can’t dry practice it on a regular basis as the outcome will constantly change. Your child simply needs to learn to co-regulate his actions with your actions. How exactly do you work on that?

  • When Mom moves to the side, he should reference, “why?” There is a great deal of non-verbal communication happening and it is learned with an adult guide first.
  • Teach the child to be observant; show him that there is important information he needs to know is happening. That can’t happen without him knowing and practicing the non-verbal communication part.
  • Walk around the block where you vary your pace and wait (silently – no prompts) for him to notice and match your pace can be very helpful. If he gets ahead, you can say, “You got ahead of me!” which lets him do the thinking to come back to you.
  • Carry something together. Move the kitchen table so you can sweep under it. Have him at one end of the table and you at the other. Coordinate actions to move the table to the side. You can move furniture all over the house.
  • Carry a bucket of water or a watering can full of water together – suspend it on a short length of rope or on a board or stick – the rope or board becomes the visual connection for the two of you. Water the flowers in the yard together.
  • Carry a laundry basket together from room to room to gather up dirty laundry, you on one side, he on the other. The laundry basket becomes the visual, tangible connection between the two of you. You can stack clean clothing in a basket and carry it together from room to room to deliver clean laundry to each resident in your house.
  • The more you can spotlight connection as you do something together, the better. This is manipulative mode. Mental and abstract mode come later in development. A mental connection or abstract connection at the corner where you stop together and look both ways is a later step in development.

As you can see, sometimes you have to go back in order to move forward. Once you have the co-regulation in place, you can move on to the abstract connection of safety.

Don’t expect the abstract to come before the co-regulation. It doesn’t work that way. Until you get these earlier processes in place, you’ll likely be simply spinning your wheels in frustration. I promise you that if you will take the time to fill in these gaps, the rest will come easier.

Getty image by Olesia Bilkai.

Originally published: August 25, 2021
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