Teaching safety skills to children with autism is imperative in our rapidly changing unsafe world. Most children have this inate sense of danget that keeps them relatively safe. Our children with autism lack any sense of danger which inherently puts them in more danger than the average child. As with most skills , you have to approach it from a developmental standpoint . What you can not do is to neglect teaching this skill regardless of the age of the person with autism.
When Logan was younger , he was what we call a bolter. A bolter is a person who takes off in a parking lot or somewhere else. He saw something that he liked so 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. This meant that child locks were always on in the car. The door wasn’t opened without immediately grabbing his hand. One hand on him while unbuckling the car seat with the other. This meant I couldn’t go anywhere alone after Madison was born. I simply could not carry her in her car seat while keeping track of him. I wasn’t willing to take that chance.
We didn’t attend many outdoor events at that age since Logan couldn’t handle them from a sensory standpoint. When we did manage to get out , we played tag. I would be near 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 we do it out of habit even to this day. 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.
Let’s talk about how we got to this point. Here’s a typical scenario for an autism parent. You’ve spent YEARS working with your child on safety skills, especially when it comes to looking for cars in parking lots, before crossing a street, etc. He is inconsistent, at best. If you don’t remind him right before he walks across a street or parking lot, he won’t remember to look. When you ask him, he knows the rule. I ask him why he didn’t look and he says, I forgot.
First, this is a much higher level thinking skill. You have to fill in the developmental gaps from the early years before you can ask this skill of your child. One of the things that RDI works on is filling in the earlier skills so you can work on the higher level ones.
The earlier skill needed here is referencing Mom and Dad, stopping when Mom/Dad stops, slowing down in co-regulation/coordination with Mom/Dad 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 all the non-verbal information happening, and an early step is co-regulating and coordinating yourself with what is happening around you. The 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 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.
- You have to teach the child to be observant around him. That there is important information that he needs to know 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 into place , you can move on to the abstract connection of safety. Until you get these earlier processes in place, you are simply spinning your wheels in frustration. No one wants that much less you or your child. I promise you that if you will take time to fill in these gaps , the rest will come easier.