Every parent worries about their child’s safety. Parents of children with autism worry more, and for good reason. Children with autism are both more vulnerable and more likely to place themselves in harm’s way than typically developing kids of the same age. Fortunately, there are a number of steps parents can take to avoid risk and make it easier to address safety issues when they do come up.
Why Safety Is an Issue for Children With Autism
With autism can come a number of different safety risks. And being higher functioning doesn’t necessarily make a child safer. Here are some of the concerns autism parents may need to keep in mind, depending upon their individual child’s age, functional level, personality, and behaviors:
- Wandering, or Elopement: Many children with autism, and quite a few adults (particularly those with more severe symptoms) tend to walk away from home or school. These individuals rarely have a specific direction in mind, and the motivating event may be hard to pin down. Some parents report that their child wanders or runs away on a regular basis. When this happens, of course, the child is vulnerable to accident, exposure, or even abuse.
- Accidents and Falls: Some autistic children are much more likely than their typical peers to climb, squeeze into tiny spaces, throw heavy objects, play with dangerous materials, and otherwise put themselves into harm’s way.
- Bullying and Abuse: While children with more severe autism can certainly be the victims of bullying, higher functioning children are also very vulnerable. Bullies tend to pick on people who have fewer friends, behave oddly, or are unable to defend themselves effectively. Children with autism often fit that bill.
- Negative Encounters With Emergency Personnel and Police: Children and teens with autism can run into a range of problems when interacting with police and first responders. Lack of communication skills can lead to misunderstandings; sensory responses to alarms and sirens can set off negative behaviors; fear and anxiety can make children with autism less willing to respond appropriately to safety instructions.
Tips to Lower Safety Risks for Kids With Autism
In many cases, it’s possible to lower the risk of injury or other issues by putting simple changes in place at home, at school, and in the community. Here are a few low cost or free suggestions for worried parents:
- For higher functioning children, clearly defined rules, social stories, visual reminders, and other educational techniques may stop dangerous behavior.
- It can also be very helpful to observe your child’s behaviors and try to determine what events are most likely to trigger elopement or attract your child away from the safety of their home. If you can eliminate some of those triggers (i.e., loud noises, certain clothes), you can significantly reduce the problem.
- When selecting and installing locks for doors and windows, imagine yourself in your child’s shoes. Could you reach and turn the bolt? Could you easily open and slip out the window? Choose locks, bolts, and window latches that are inaccessible for your child. Keep keys hidden.
- If you have a pool, install a safety fence and perimeter alarm.
- When furnishing your home, think about climbing and other safety issues. When your child was a toddler you probably “baby-proofed,” but now you may need to “child-proof” your home. Avoid open bookcases or, if you must have them, fasten them securely to the wall. Keep all dangerous items such as knives and matches safely locked or in cupboards too high to reach. If necessary, put latches on the oven.
- Keep a close and careful eye on your child’s school experiences. As often as possible, pop in to see how things are going for your child (especially during unstructured times such as recess and lunch). Children with autism may not recognize or be able to describe bullying or put-downs, so it may be up to you and the teacher to ensure that your child is not a victim. Your child’s teacher may also be able to work with you on reducing wandering and other dangerous behaviors.
- Be in touch with your community first responders and police before any issues arise. Provide first responders with photos of your child, information about behaviors and challenges, and suggestions for helping your child to remain calm. And, of course, provide emergency contact information.
Top Safety Products for Protect Kids With Autism
Once you’ve put all these measures in place, you may want to consider additional products that can help protect your child.
Locks and Latches
If your child with autism is capable of opening a bolt, opening a lock, and you’ve tried both raising the locks and hiding the keys, now is the time to get creative. Two innovative locking devices come with high ratings:
- Lockey Keyless Locks: These double-sided keyless locks use combination keypads that can be changed as needed. Choose from a deadbolt, level, or knob configuration.
- Guardian Lock: The Guardian Lock is a patented device that can be used to lock doors that are not protected by existing bolts or locks. It’s an ideal way to keep your child safe when you’re visiting friends or family, in a hotel, etc.
- Angel Guard: This unusual product covers your child’s seatbelt release, making it difficult for them to unbuckle themselves while in the car.
If your child is likely to wander into unsafe areas of the house or out the door, alarms can be a great way to signal danger. There is a wide range of options, including simple bells that ring when a door is opened and electronic alarms that use motion sensors:
- Smart Caregiver Economy Wireless Monitor & Motion Sensor is just one of many systems available for alerting caregivers to an autistic family member’s wanderings.
- GE Window and Door Chime is a less expensive option that responds when someone attempts to physically open a door or window.
- Shop bells and jingle bells: For daytime use (or if you’re a very light sleeper), consider placing low-cost shop bells or strips of Christmas jingle bells over doors or windows.
Some people with autism elope, no matter how carefully parents and caregivers manage the environment. When that happens, safety depends on your ability to quickly and accurately track and find your loved one. Fortunately, there is a wide range of GPS tracking devices on the market at different price points. Be sure you choose one that will not be removed (ordinary wristbands, for example, may not be a good choice).
- AMBER Alert GPS is both a two-way communication device and a GPS. It also issues an alert to a pre-selected group of people via email. Use a computer or mobile app to track your child and make use of custom safety tools.
- Care Trak was originally designed to track people with dementia but is equally helpful for tracking people on the autism spectrum. It’s a favorite tool for police, fire departments, and other first responders who use it to locate individuals at risk.
ID Bracelets and Cards
If your child does wander and you can’t locate him immediately, bracelets and ID cards can help others to help you.
- Alert Me Bands are adjustable and cannot be removed by the wearer. They’re a simple concept—a medical alert bracelet that contains a wealth of information about your child’s diagnosis, emergency contacts, allergies, etc.
- Kheelz: Ice Card and Medical Alert ID System for Children is a unique way to be sure your child is carrying a card and medical alert with them. The card is carried in a special shoe insert; a special tag on the shoe alerts emergency personnel to the location of the card.
- Kid Safe Child ID™ Card is a credit card sized item you carry in your wallet that contains photos and emergency information to share with anyone helping you to locate and care for your child.
A Word From Verywell
No matter which devices, locks, alarms, or systems you use to protect your child, there is no substitute for common sense. If your child is an eloper, is nonverbal, or is likely to engage in dangerous or inappropriate behavior, it’s up to you to manage your child’s environment and keep a vigilant watch. Naturally, no one can watch their child 24/7, but here are a few tips for avoiding emergencies:
- If you are outside of your safety zone (home or school, for most people), be sure one person is assigned the job of keeping an eye on your autistic child. This is especially critical in distracting situations with lots of opportunities for wandering and getting into trouble. Beaches, amusement parks, and parking lots are all particularly dangerous.
- If you are really worried about losing track of your child in a new location, consider using a toddler “leash” or just holding hands to avoid the possibility of a disaster.
- Don’t allow embarrassment to put your child in jeopardy. Yes, it feels weird to set up an alarm outside your child’s room when you’re visiting family—but if the alternative is a lost child, you may need to swallow your pride.
- Talk to your neighbors. The more your neighbors know about your child the better they’ll understand him, and the more comfortable they’ll feel giving you a call if they notice your child out and about at an odd time of day. Neighbors can also be enlisted, if your child goes missing.
- Give your child plenty of practice in being found. Most autistic children are more comfortable with people and activities they know well. If your child has an ID bracelet, have him practice showing the bracelet to neighbors and family members. Introduce your child to police officers and other first responders. Teach your child basic phrases (“I’m lost,” for example) or have him practice showing a personal ID card to a stranger.
No system is perfect, and accidents happen to the best of us. But you can radically increase your child’s safety by taking action before problems arise.