As parents of children with autism, we already know firsthand the many challenges associated with keeping our kids safe, both in and out of school. The nature of our child’s disorder often presents a wide range of behaviors that can make their safety our full-time job. Wandering/elopement, PICA, choking, water fixations, inability to communicate in an emergency, and general situational fearlessness mark a few of the many things we face (or simply worry about) on a daily basis.
The statistics from the National Autism Association speak for themselves:
- Approximately 48% of children with an ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings
- Two in three parents of elopers have experienced a traffic injury “close call”
- More than one-third of ASD children who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
I know how easy it is to become consumed with debilitating fear every time your child is out of your sight. When my daughter, Jenna, was younger, I often felt powerless to protect her – or, to even be able to predict how she would react and respond in any given situation. Now, as she’s approaching 15-years old, I understand that while parents of children with autism have to be exceptionally vigilant at all times, we do have resources and options available to support us in our efforts to keep them keep them safe.
Create Your Safety Plan
Every family has their own safety routines for their child with autism. Over the years, my husband, Jonathan, and I have learned and implemented various tools, tips, and technologies into a cohesive safety plan for Jenna. For example, we know that every time we enter a room, we assess available exits and create a strategy that ensures Jenna is continuously monitored by one of us. We keep a window decal on Jenna’s side of the car that alerts first responders that Jenna is unable to communicate her needs in the event of an accident, and we take photos of her, almost daily, in case she wanders off and we need to tell responders what she was wearing.
Often, parents assume that a 1:1 aide will be able to handle whatever safety issues arise and make modifications on the fly. It is important to be sure that the aide is well trained and equipped to support your child in a variety of emergency situations. Does your child’s aide carry emergency essentials that your child might require (lollipops to stay quiet during lockdown, fidget toys to stay occupied, first aide items)? Has he/she been trained in all safety protocols and equipped to carry them out? Does he/she have keys to the classroom door? What about communication capability (i.e radio, cell phone, office call button, access to the PA system)? Or a wheelchair or “stair chair” to assist in transporting or evacuating your child if necessary?
Other useful resources we’ve incorporated into our safety routines include:
Most parents don’t realize they can have safety goals and emergency plans outlined in their child’s IEP. Always discuss your child’s specific needs with the school administration and Special Education director to put a detailed plan in place.
We use the SafetyNet tracking device to help keep our daughter safe. Worn on a child’s ankle or wrist, this device ensures that should she wander off while wearing the tracker, police/fire department can quickly locate her.
Similarly, many parents use the Life360 app for children who have their own smartphone.
We installed an active alarm system in our home that instantly alerts us whenever a door or window opens. The alarm enables us to respond quickly should Jenna wander off. There are many low tech ways to alarm the doors of your home, from hanging bells to installing individual door alarms that you can find at your local hardware store.
Keep those “kid safety locks” on at all times to ensure your child can’t open the car door while the vehicle is in motion. Yes, you will inevitably inadvertently lock your adult friends in your backseat at some point – they will forgive you.
Partnering with First Responders
Our town offers the Erin Program; a program created specifically for special needs families. Parents create an emergency profile for their child to help first responders in the event of an emergency. All personal information is securely stored and not made public. Contact your local police or fire department to see if your town offers this program or something similar.
No matter how many apps we download or strategies we implement, we will always worry about our children and their safety – as all parents do. However, for parents of children with autism, continuously tapping into the resources available to us can deliver the much-needed peace of mind that we are doing everything we can to advocate for and protect our kids at all times.
Susan Parziale is the Administrative Coordinator for Safe and Sound Schools and lives in Boston.
Earlier this week, I had the amazing opportunity to speak at the National PTA Legislative Conference in Arlington, Virginia. I was invited to speak during the opening session with U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
The attendees gathered were state PTA representatives from every state in the country. The theme of this year’s conference was to “Get in the Game”, to inspire advocates into action.
The PTA has touched my heart in a deep way. The PTA is made up of parents and educators who volunteer their time for the sole purpose of benefiting the youth in our communities. These are the real change-makers! I was honored to share with them my own personal journey from a stay-at-home mom to a school safety advocate. It was never a path that I anticipated or would think to take, but our lives have a strange way of changing course when we least expect it.
Over the last couple of months, I have seen a major shift in the conversation surrounding school safety. Communities are ready to take actions to ensure that tragedies like Sandy Hook and Parkland don’t happen again. Our goal as an organization is to help educate school communities in how to get started today. Change is possible. We can make schools safe when we work together.
Join the movement today. Begin the school safety assessment process by downloading our free Straight-A Safety Toolkits, launching a Safe and Sound Youth Council, or simply sharing our materials with your community. Together we can make our school safe and sound.
Mother of Emilie Parker
Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools
While schools are among the safest places for young people in our society, the recent mass shootings and school shooting in Benton, Kentucky, can increase fears and safety concerns for children and parents.
While the odds of a child aged 5 to 18 years being the victim of a violent death at school are extraordinarily low, it can and does happen. Consequently, it is important for parents to have guidance on how to address such events with their children. Adapted from guidance we have developed for the National Association of School Psychologists, in this blog we offer some of our thoughts on how parents can support their children when they ask questions about school violence.
Develop and Foster Resiliency
Proactively developing resiliency can help your child develop resources needed to cope with trauma exposure. Internal resiliency can be promoted by:
- Encouraging an active (or approach oriented) coping style (e.g., helping others, taking action to help yourself)
- Teaching your child how to better regulate their emotions and solve problems
- Providing your child guidance on positive, healthy ways of coping
- Fostering self-confidence and self-esteem by building upon your child’s strengths
- Validating the importance of faith and belief systems
External resiliency can be promoted by:
- Facilitating school connectedness and engagement in school and community activities
- Facilitating peer relationships
- Providing access to positive adult role models
Provide a Safe Place to Talk
Next, let your child know you are willing to pay attention, listen, and without forcing them to do so, talk about school violence. Protect your child by answering questions truthfully and providing reassurance that adults will take care of him or her. When providing facts about school violence, avoid providing any unasked-for details that might increase fears and emphasize actions adults and their school are taking to help keep them safe.
Build Community Connections
Connect your child to others by engaging the assistance of your child’s teachers, a school psychologist, coaches/mentors, friends, and neighbors. Spend extra time with your child and encourage engagement in familiar routines and activities.
Take Care of Yourself
It’s important to be aware of your own emotions, and while it is okay to show some emotion, it is a problem when adults lose the ability to regulate their emotions or fears in front of children. Especially for youth in preschool and primary grades, this makes a situation seem more frightening. If you are struggling to cope with the reality of school violence, reach out to others with similar experiences, or seek professional help. Taking care of yourself, will help you to better care for your child.
Increase Self-awareness and Understanding
It is important for your child to learn how to identify and manage fear and anxiety related emotions. You might tell your child to listen to their body’s “alarm system.” Help them to understand that stress reactions can help to keep them safe from physical and emotional harm in a dangerous situation, but when danger is not present such stress is not helpful. Enlist the support of a school psychologist to help your child regulate emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear. Development of these skills empowers your child with knowledge that they have control over their emotions.
Encourage positive messaging by helping your child to assert: “I am strong,” and “People care about me.” Help your child to understand that while they may not have complete control over their circumstances, they do have some control over how they respond to the situation and how they seek support. Review safety protocols their school has in place and what they can do to get to a safe location if there is a concern. Refer to Developmental Levels of Safety Awareness for information on providing such guidance.
Increase Empowerment through Engagement
Let your child know that his or her voice matters. Help them find a way to be a part of the solution and a true stakeholder in safety. Younger children may enjoy starting or joining a Safety Patrol at school, while middle and high school students may take a greater leadership role by starting or joining the Safe and Sound Youth Council in their school.
If your child is distressed, keep in mind that recovery is the rule. However, if stress reactions do not begin to lessen after a week or more, consider seeking the help of a trained professional such as a school psychologist. This is especially important if your child has ever been directly exposed to an act of violence or has lost a family member.
Dr. Melissa Reeves is the Immediate Past President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and a speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools. Dr. Stephen Brock is a former President of NASP and speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools.
Back-to-school is an important event every year in my home. It represents so much more than just back-to-school. It means my kids are getting older and naturally that I am getting older as well. There will be new teachers, new clothes, new school supplies! Summer wanes, fall creeps in and life takes on a familiar routine. Of course, for me another topic on my mind when school rolls around is safety. Even when our girls were young my husband and I spoke openly and frequently about safety rules and guidelines. We have had these talks so often over the years that our girls are now able to mimic our “discussions” verbatim any chance they can.
Talking about safety at school has been one of the newer additions to our list of safety conversations. After losing my oldest daughter Emilie to a school shooting, how could it not? This year, our safety conversation was initiated by my youngest daughter Samantha, a soon to be 3rd grader, while shopping for new school clothes. “Mom, can I tell you something,” she began. “Did you know there are drills at our school where we have to go outside?!” I smiled and asked her if she could tell me why they would need to go out of the school for a drill. She explained to me not only why they would need to evacuate their school, but how all the other drills at her school work. Samantha loves an audience and I love seeing her repeat all the safety information she has learned both at home and at school.
When we talk to children about school safety, it can often feel intimidating. However, like most things, the more we practice the better we get. In that one conversation while shopping, my daughters covered not only safety drills but also discussions about bullying and what to do if you find yourself surrounded by strangers. Seeing Samantha take our safety talks to another level and become the teacher herself was amazing. Safety is an empowering tool for children. Having safety rules and boundaries gives them a sense of security and control. So, if you haven’t already started those conversations with your kids, start now! You will be amazed with the ideas they will share with you and the questions and conversations that will follow. Hopefully, someday soon they will become your teacher as well!
Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools
Many of our Safe and Sound Schools are already out for summer and my kids are literally counting the days until school ends here. I have just about finalized our summer trips, camps, and activities, but there is one thing that still has me panicked a little.
Yes, I said it. And I’m not the only one thinking it. Our lives are highly structured during the school year between school, sports, music, art, church, family and social obligations. What will my family do with the gift of their free time this summer?
I am picturing berry picking, swimming, reading (actual books), and playing games together. But the reality is that each one of us is likely to spend a great deal of this newfound free time with our smartphones, laptops, and gaming devices. So how do I help my family make the most of their free time, balancing time online and off? And how do I ensure that the time they spend online is safe as well as fun?
We reached out to one of our favorite online safety resources, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) for a list of tips and helpful resources for fun and safe summer online…
1. Develop a family contract for online and electronic use. While a safety contract is great for kids, it’s also helpful for parents. In fact, for each set of rules, parents will have to make a set of promises, too. We believe online safety is a partnership, and it works better when parents and their children are in it together.
2. Monitor online usage and contacts. It’s good practice to friend and follow your kids on social media, but don’t stalk them. You can still protect your kids from the harms of the Internet while respecting their online space.
3. Be a good digital role model. Kids learn a lot from their parents, so model the type of behaviors you’d like to see your kids pick up. Curb you own bad digital habits, know when to unplug and show your kids how to collaborate and create online.
4. Share the screen. Spend time online together learning what interests your child and talking about what you discover and want to avoid along the way.
5. Spot trolls and temptations. We are in trying times online. Bad behavior such as cyberbullying, doxing, swatting and online harassment have made headlines. Fake news stories are in the forefront and online trolls have become increasingly more popular. It is important to teach your kids how to spot these trolls and instances of fake news. Educate them on reliable news sources and have them understand that just because something is on the internet, doesn’t necessarily make it true.
Some resources to check out…
Learn more about FOSI
FOSI offers a range of resources including the 7 Steps to Good Digital Parenting, Three Teachable Moments and Cleaning Up Your Digital Footprint tools.