Dennis Debbaubt began his Autism Risk & Safety Management Seminar with a powerful analogy: How many people wore their seatbelts on the way to this seminar? How many people just put it on without even thinking about it? We don’t think about the fact that we might get in an accident – we just put it on because it’s part of our daily safety routine, like locking doors and looking both ways. We didn’t arrive at the seminar and say, “Well, that was a waste of time, putting on my seatbelt. I didn’t even get in an accident!” And we’re still going to wear our seatbelts the next time we get in the car. Likewise, managing risk for our children is part of our daily safety routine. We don’t have incidents occurring every day, but we still need to have those risk management efforts in place. And in many cases, there is more that we can be doing, even in our own home.
One of the biggest risks for people with autism is wandering, whether they’re at home or they’re away from home. I’ve experienced this with my own son over the years, and wish that I’d had more knowledge of the things I could have done to prepare for such a situation before it occurred. I still would have panicked all the times it happened, but at least I would have had more of a plan in place. The following are some tips to manage wandering and also address in-home safety issues:
- Secure the home. As I discovered, resourceful autistic preschoolers can quickly move a chair over to doors with locks strategically placed “out of their reach.” Thus, I learned to keep all chairs away from the vicinity of the door, and to move the locks to the very top of the door. Dennis also recommends that when you have to put extra locks on your exterior doors to make sure to upgrade your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Put a bell or alarm system on the doors, or – ideally – have a professional locksmith or burglar alarm company install a system. Use technology to your advantage. Have stickers put on all windows near exterior doors alerting first responders that there is an individual with autism in the house. (See ASA’s Safe & Sound program for stickers and more tips.)
- Use social stories, books, or videos to teach ASD children about safety issues and being able to respond to police and emergency services personnel. This will be most helpful in situations when you (the parent) might be incapacitated, such as a car accident, or in a fire, so that your child will not hide or run from rescuers.
- Of course, secure poisonous chemicals, cleaners, matches and lighters, tools, knives, and weapons in locked cabinets. Make sure the ASD individual does not have access to the key!
- Ask your local 911 call center to “red flag” information about your child in their database before you need to call them in an emergency. That way, if and when you call during an emergency, the 911 dispatcher can alert the first responders with the information before they arrive. Providing them with this information before an incident occurs will yield better responses.
- Prepare an Autism Emergency Information Form and make copies to keep on the refrigerator, near the phone, in your purse and the glove box of your car, and to give to other family members, teachers, friends, trusted neighbors, and caregivers.
- Consider ID options. Even verbal individuals may have difficulty expressing themselves in stressful situations and would benefit from some type of identification. Options include a MedicAlert bracelet or necklace, a shoe tag, laminated cards sewn into jackets or on belt loops or zipper pulls, and non-permanent tattoos that bear ID information (tattooswithapurpose.com).
- Check if there is a Project Lifesaver program near you. If not, use a personal GPS tracking device, such as those featured at Brickhouse Security (be sure to scroll down to read the FAQs). Again, use technology to your advantage: LoJack SafetyNet features a tracking bracelet that utilizes radio frequency technology and has a 6-month battery life.
- Keep a record that notes all the safety precautions you make. You may need to prove to authorities that you are not a neglectful parent, especially if your child is a wanderer. Some will assume that this is because the child is unsupervised for long periods of time and will tell you that you need to “keep an eye on” your child or “teach them not to wander off.” We parents of ASD children are some of the most vigilant parents around, but those who don’t know us (or our children) tend to make assumptions, and unfortunately we hear those types of comments all too often.
In the next post, I’ll discuss what I learned from the seminar about what you can do in your community to help manage risk and keep your child safe.