Keeping Children With Special Needs Safe
Special-needs children and adults are at an increased risk for entering into dangerous situations. They often struggle with the ability to sense danger, and therefore may be prone to literally walking into dangerous situations. I recently read this unsettling quote: “According to the Department of Justice, people with developmental disabilities, including autism, have a four- to 10-times higher risk of becoming crime victims, and are twice as likely to be sexually abused as people without those disabilities.” Additionally, children with disorders such as autism or Down syndrome are highly susceptible to wandering away from their homes or schools. However, according to the National Autism Association, nearly half of parents of autistic children say that they have never received any guidance from a professional regarding what to do about wandering. In this RN Remedies article, I hope to fill this gap and share some excellent ideas for promoting safety that I have encountered in my research.
Know your child’s abilities and limitations
- Is your child able to communicate their name, address, or phone number?
- Do they know how to dial 911?
- Can your child safely cross the street?
- Does your child know to never leave home or school without permission/accompaniment by a responsible adult?
- Would your child walk off with a stranger who approached them?
- Can your child swim?
- Would your child know what to do if they were approached by a police officer?
- Does your child understand the meaning of simple commands such as “stop,” “go” or “no”?
- Can your child respect personal boundaries such as avoiding hugging, touching or approaching strangers?
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then it is important to try to address these issues with your child in the best way possible. Think about which of the above information that your child might be able to grasp conceptually and work on these topics with them. Even a little preparation and practice is better than nothing at all.
Work together with your child’s school
If children have an individualized education plan (IEP) at school, you can empower them by adding safety to their learning goals. You may ask your child’s school for help in teaching important skills like calling for help, crossing the street, or reciting parents’ names. Work with your child’s teacher to devise the best strategies for your child. For example, some children respond very well to situational role-playing or behavioral modeling.
Practice, practice, practice
Work on safety both at home and school, because the more practice your child has, the better. Parents and teachers working together as a team will be much more effective, and most children have a better chance at retaining information that is repeated and reinforced from multiple sources.
Prevention is key. You can alert your special-needs child to potential dangers in their environment by labeling hazards such as doors or the stove with simple symbols such as a large red stop sign. Your child may be more receptive to avoiding dangers if they are visually prompted. Here is a link to a big red stop sign that you can print out and use at home: https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/docs/stop_sign_prompts.pdf
What if your child actually wandered away from home or school? Some children may not be able to articulate their name, where they live or their phone number. Thinking about these potential issues ahead of time can lead to quicker response time and more logical thinking in the event that a child does go missing. I have come across with some excellent suggestions for maximizing the best possible outcomes if a child does go missing:
- Have your child wear some form of identifying information at all times. If your child won’t tolerate a medical alert bracelet, there are other creative options available to you. If I Need Help is a non-profit organization that has created some very creative alternatives to traditional medical alert jewelry.
- Get to know your neighbors and let them know about your child’s specific needs. Compile a list of volunteers that you can rely on in case of an emergency and have their contact information handy.
- Create a special needs information profile (SNIP), which is a tool that contains information about a special-needs individual. A SNIP serves as a handy resource to give to police and other first responders in the event of an emergency. It should include:
- A photo
- Identifying information
- Pertinent medical information such as diagnoses and important medications
- Ways to calm the child down
- Emergency contact information
- If your child is prone to wandering, make sure to include major hazards in your neighborhood that your child may be attracted to such as lakes, ponds, swimming pools or train tracks.
The National Autism Association and Autism Speaks have excellent online resources for creating SNIPs and other emergency action plans:
Make Your Child’s Needs Known
Alert your local police and fire departments of your child and their special needs. You can even give your local police department a copy of your child’s SNIP, so your child is on their radar screen. In Los Angeles County, you can enroll any child or adult with special needs in the Los Angeles County Specific Needs Disaster Registry (the “SNAP” database). This is an invaluable tool for alerting police, fire fighters and first responders about individuals who may be unable to evacuate a building on their own, seek shelter or remain safe in a shelter without supervision, or call for help after a major disaster. It is free and easy to enroll your loved one, so there is no reason not to. To do so, visit http://snap.lacounty.gov.
I hope that this RN Remedies article provides new and useful information for parents and caregivers. I also encourage you to talk with your children’s doctors, nurses and teachers about other ways to optimize their ability to remain safe.