For parents of a child with autism, safety skills are among the first their child should learn — and the benefits of mastering these skills are numerous, according to Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, a Madison Heights ABA therapy center for children and teens.
“It’s important that children with autism learn safety skills as early as possible. This really allows greater freedom and more opportunities for them and for their families to go out into the community,” says Dr. Thomas. “The world opens up for them if they have the skills to navigate their community safely.”
While children are young and as they grow, parents should lean into their ABA provider for help to learn important safety skills. ABA therapy is perfectly designed to support the growth of safety skills, says Dr. Thomas.
“Through ABA therapy, a skilled therapist will break skills down into very small steps and use reinforcement to teach these steps,” she explains, adding that best outcomes are achieved in coordination with parents. “Healing Haven, in particular, is focused on involving parents and it’s a big part of our program. We’re always looking ahead to predict what your child will be doing in one year, in five years, even at age 18. Then we figure out what we need to accomplish now to make sure your child is as independent as possible.”
First safety skills to learn
A main concern for parents of a child with autism is something ABA therapists call “elopement,” or simply running away from their caregiver. “We always have a plan in place at our clinic and work with parents at home on a program we call Stay With Me,” Dr. Thomas explains. This program starts with making sure a child holds the hand of their parent, caregiver or therapist, then gradually transfers to staying close by.
Because elopement can seem random, therapists can help parents learn the reason why their child runs away. “If you’re going on a walk and your child knows a neighbor has a Dr. Seuss book and they want to see the book, they may simply run to the house in search of the book. Or sometimes a child thinks it’s a game when you chase them,” she says. “Knowing the reason for the behavior is really important and we can help parents identify that so they can respond accordingly.”
One fundamental way to cope with elopement is to focus on communication skills so your child can more effectively indicate their needs. “We can’t always get rid of the desire, but we can help the child understand that they need to be safe,” she says. “If access to the neighbor’s pool is something they want, teaching them to communicate this will alert their parent to the particular need at that time and this helps ensure safety. If the pool is not an option, a parent can then take the next steps to make sure the child stays safe. For example, they may give them an alternative activity that could substitute for the neighbor’s pool.”
As children get older and parents become confident about their child’s increasing independence, Dr. Thomas suggests developing communication methods that work for the whole family. Picture cards kept near the door can serve as a signal when a child wants to play in the yard. The child can either put the card on the door to indicate a desire to go outside, or parents can use the card to remind their child that they need to ask before leaving the house.
“There are many methods you can use in your home to keep secure and communicate with your child,” says Dr. Thomas. Talk with your ABA therapist for more ideas.
Safety skills within context
As you visit locations within the community, consider typical expected behavior and work with your child to help them learn what they need to know, including safety issues related to getting to the library or store, for example.
“We teach children to hold our hands when they are little and they learn it’s a rule when we cross the street, and as they get older, we work with children to learn about how to safely cross the street,” Dr. Thomas says. Parking lots, crosswalks and looking both ways before crossing are all topics of frequent practice, she says. “We go out in the community and teach children how to do this, which is very different from just talking about it to them or showing them pictures and asking them if it is safe or dangerous.”
Your ABA clinic can help create social stories — or short picture books about specific community scenarios — to help your child learn expected behaviors. “We help them learn that there are rules for different locations. They can’t go to the library and take all the books off the shelves and they can’t run through the library. The rule is to walk and be gentle with books. Also, they can’t go into the grocery store and start eating the food. It’s always helpful to discuss the rules ahead of time and then reinforce expected behaviors with praise, or even treats or stickers,” Dr. Thomas says.
What helps overall
It’s always a great idea to get your child acquainted with local community helpers, like mail carriers, police officers and firefighters. “Some public safety departments even have programs where you give them a picture of your child in case they get lost,” says Dr. Thomas. “And it’s always a good idea to get to know your neighbors and make sure they are familiar with your child.”
When you visit the grocery store with your child, be sure they have some form of identification in their pocket in case they wander off. Teach them to go to the cash register or customer service desk if they get lost.
Your ABA therapist can help teach your child how to find safe helpers to ask for help. “There are answers to questions we help a child remember, like their name, where they live, their parents’ names and phone numbers,” Dr. Thomas says. “These are good to know for social reasons, too, but we teach children these important details about themselves so they can report in situations where they are lost.”
Learn more about unique therapeutic services at Healing Haven. Visit thehealinghaven.net.