The latest newsletter from the Federation for Children with Special Needs, a Boston-based non-profit organization that provides support and information for parents of disabled kids, has an article with safety tips to help parents of children on the autism spectrum. (See page 14 for the article written by Karen Douglass, mother of a five-year-old boy with autism.)
The tips complement this two-page handout produced by Dennis Debbaudt, a Florida parent who has become an advocate and safety expert for people with autism and runs Autism Risk & Safety Management, which produces training videos for public safety agencies and educators. Debbault's materials are written with both children and adults in mind.
The tips range from simple steps to those that require some shoe leather and homework. As with any contingency planning exercise, some of the steps are sobering. They include:
Program an "ICE" telephone number into your mobile phone contact list. ICE stands for "in case of emergency" who should be called. This is a good idea for everyone, but as Douglass points out, it's vital in an emergency if you become incapacitated while with your autistic child.
Childproof your routes of exit. Families with young children on the autism spectrum should consider putting door latches out of reach. Douglass notes that her family also installed an alarm system that sounds if a door is opened, so her son won't leave the house unnoticed.
Prepare an information sheet about your child to share with public safety officials. Debbaudt's handout has a suggested list of details to include that go beyond name, physical description and photograph: all telephone numbers for parents and caregivers; atypical behaviors the child may do that will attract attention; favorite locations to visit; likes and dislikes when it comes to approaching the person; and method of communication, both verbal and non-verbal. Debbaudt also recommends preparing a map of dangerous locations near your home, including bodies of water.
Get to know the local police and fire department. If your child's wandering off is a concern, Debbaudt recommends contacting police, fire and ambulance services with this information, so they can flag it in their emergency response database. "When we provide law enforcement with key information before an incident occurs," he writes, "we can expect better responses." Visit the police and fire stations and emergency medical technician (EMT) station.
The advice extends to traffic safety. Douglass' town agreed to install signs at both ends of her street, alerting motorists to the fact that a special needs child lives in the neighborhood. She advocates that other parents do the same in their communities.
Get to know your neighbors. It's important for parents to do their best to educate neighbors and friends about their children. "If the neighbors know about the child's special needs, they are much more likely to act quickly if they see a child outside alone or in unsafe situations," Douglass says.