Safety in the Home for Children with Autism
All parents have household safety concerns, usually starting when their child begins crawling around the house. Baby-proofing the home is at the top of any parent’s priority list. However, children with autism may face unique risks because of their tendency to fixate on certain items or display sensory-seeking behaviors, which can leave them unaware of possible dangers around them. As a result, some typical household safety concerns may become more serious based on your child’s unique interests. These may include:
- Accessing medications, chemicals, sharp household objects, or electrical outlets
- Starting or knowing what to do in the event of a fire (matches, lighters, stove, grill, backyard fire pit, etc.)
- Climbing on top of furniture to reach something and then falling, or having the furniture item (e.g., bookcase) fall on them
- Leaving the house without someone knowing (discussed further in this post about elopement)
Always remember to consider the potential dangers of household items when they are accessible to a child who may not understand their purpose or danger. Below are some tips for creating a home environment that is not only safe but also provides ongoing safety learning opportunities.
Think of your home as your child’s learning environment. The techniques you use to introduce and practice home safety skills are the same as you would use to teach any other skill. Provide positive reinforcement for skills performed correctly and in the right order, and when your child refrains from activities you’ve explicitly identified as being unsafe. Remember to keep steps simple, short, and few in number (chunking steps into mini-lessons helps with this).
Consider using social stories, activity schedules, visual rules, checklists, signs, or other techniques that have been successful with your child in the past. It also is important to apply the home safety skills your child is practicing in other environments, such as school or family member’s homes.
Some ideas include the following:
- Put pictures or labels on items such as kitchen cabinets, rooms, or appliances. This way, your child can see where things go and more easily associate pictures with instructions. It can be something as simple as using the Mr. Yuk stickers provided free by poison control centers. These labels will help your child learn your expectations and discourage unsafe behaviors.
- Set boundaries and limits. You might place pictures of a stop sign on any door that leads outside, to a stairwell, or on cabinets that are not meant to be opened. You also might use painter’s tape to mark boundaries on the floor.
- Keep things organized and in their appropriate places. Knowing where things are and where to put them away creates order and structure, helping kids feel more comfortable and less frustrated. This may make kids with autism less likely to engage in unsafe behaviors.
Home safety also involves home security. This can range from alarm systems to special locks. Some ideas for home security include:
- Install locks or sensors on any doors, windows, and cabinets as needed.
- Install door and/or window alarms. Of course, any alarm system will need to strike a balance between maintaining safety and being tolerable if your child has sensory issues. Many alarm options can be tailored to meet your family and child’s specific needs.
- Put covers on electrical outlets and protection on any knobs (e.g., doors, oven, faucets).
- Hide or bind appliance wires carefully.
- Secure any items that may be dangerous. Knives, matches, cleaning chemicals, or anything potentially dangerous can be placed somewhere locked or out of reach. If your child is a climber, secure anything that could potentially be used for climbing.
- Create social stories about smoke detectors, family fire safety routines, or how to behave around fire. Your family should have a fire drill so that your child knows exactly where to go in case of an emergency.
In the event of an emergency, your first instinct always should be to call 911 and alert the appropriate authorities. If your child has ingested (or possibly ingested) something he shouldn’t have, then call poison control immediately. All emergency numbers, including people who are part of your safety network, should be written in several locations throughout your home and in your vehicles. It also may be helpful to provide your child with a laminated emergency contact card that you teach them to keep with them at all times.
This infographic summarizes the most helpful tips for household safety: