Do you get nervous when you and your child with autism are invited to a playdate? Do you want to do things like go to the zoo, visit the aquarium, or even pick up groceries from your local supermarket, but feel like you can’t prevent your autistic child from doing something unpredictable during an outing like these? Do you worry about what will happen when your child grows older and bigger, and they don’t have experience following simple instructions in the community?
Teaching safety skills to autistic children is hard to do. But the good news is that the more your child practices, the more accustomed they will become to following safety instructions from an adult. In this article, we will discuss a basic step-by-step process for teaching this skill to your child with autism.
Start With A Baseline
The first step to teaching safety skills to your child with autism is to not teach anything at all. This is because you first need to know what they can do before you can know what to teach them. To find out what safety skills your child already has, you need to test their skills in a low risk environment, such as an enclosed flat park, a fenced yard, or an empty gymnasium.
Start with simple directions like “stop,” “wait,” “come back,” and “hands to self.” That last one can be hard to test out if there is nothing or no one around that your child wants to touch or explore, so you may have to test it out in different settings and on different occasions.
Try not to provide negative feedback if your child doesn’t follow the directions. Remember, this is just to test out what they know. However, if they get it right, certainly shower them with praise and attention.
Practice In A Safe Setting
Once you know which directions your child can follow consistently and which they can’t, you’re ready to start teaching and practicing. You can practice in the same environment you used to test out their skills, but you also may want to branch out a little. While you’re still in practice mode, make a list of safe settings that are fun, too. Better yet, suggest these locations the next time another parent initiates a playdate.
Safe settings are typically enclosed or separate from urban areas if they are outdoors, and child-friendly if they are indoors. For example, many local zoos are a great option, as their walking paths are wide and bounded by fences and trees, and there is no traffic. Zoos are ideal during the off season or off hours of the day so that you don’t have to deal with crowds. Some other common examples that you may find in your community include indoor play spaces where the sensory input is not too high, such as indoor bounce play areas or play cafes for younger children, your local shopping mall (again, during off hours is best), rec centers with designated activity or play areas, children’s gyms during scheduled open gyms, children’s museums, and local farms. You may know this last one as the pumpkin patch, but check their websites as some farms offer entrance and programming during the spring and summer, too.
Gradually Increase Expectations
Remember, teaching safety skills to your autistic child is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll want to increase your expectations very gradually, all the while providing as many practice opportunities as you can for basic instructions when you’re in your trusted, safe environments. When you’re ready to try a new environment, make your trip short, and keep your expectations low. That way you can ensure a successful short trip – and maybe the next time, you can add ten more minutes onto the outing. Increase expectations gradually ensures you and your child continue to build positive experiences in the community that are safe and fun.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.