New York City has been shaken by the story of Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old nonverbal young man with autism, who walked out of his high school in Queens on October 4th, 2013. As the search continues and the New York City Department of Education has announced an overhaul of the measures used to ensure the safety of the more than 100,000 children with special needs served by the city.
The plight of Avonte’s family is the worst nightmare for many parents who have children on the spectrum. Even thinking about the topic of dangerous situations and safety skills induces anxiety for both parents and professionals. Fortunately, research shows that systematic teaching of safety skills to children with autism spectrum disorder is very successful across functioning level, intellectual ability, and language ability.
Use the steps below to begin thinking about designing a safety plan for your child on the spectrum.
Speak with your child’s school and treatment team to assess your child’s general safety skills and develop a treatment plan if necessary. It can be very anxiety-provoking to test your child for their responses to dangerous situations. However, by taking a proactive and preventive stance now, you are ensuring greater independence later.
Safety areas to address include accident prevention and response, fire / emergency safety, abduction prevention, sexual abuse prevention.
Put together a home evacuation plan in case of fire or disaster.
Walk around the neighborhood with your child and show them safe places they can go in case of an emergency (e.g. neighbor’s house, open store). Note any locations, sights, or sounds your child is particularly drawn to, so you know where to check first in case he or she wanders away from home.
If your child wanders, consider visual reminders in your home (STOP on doors leading outside) or extra security precautions (extra locks above your child’s reach).
Remove your child’s name from backpacks or other highly visible items, to reduce the risk that others will call them by name.
Make sure you take into account how your child learns best (verbal, visual). Best practice strategies include instruction, modeling, rehearsal, and feedback.
Teach your child that it is important for you to know where they are. If they want to go to a different area of the store or go with a friend, they need to let you know first.
Teach your child important information in case they are separated from you: Their full name, address, and phone number; their parents’ names; How to make emergency phone calls from home and other locations; How to respond to people calling their name; Who to ask for help (e.g. look for a mom with kids or someone in law enforcement uniform); For non-verbal children, consider a medical bracelet or identification card.
Teach your child how to identify a stranger and how to respond to a stranger approaching them: Let them know that strangers can be men or women, well-dressed or poorly dressed, kind or rude, pretty or ugly. Strangers should be judged on their actions, not their appearance. If a stranger tries to follow or grab them, they should SAY NO, GET AWAY, and TELL AN ADULT. Teach them to yell, “Help! This is not my mom/dad!”
Teach your child about touches that are inappropriate and ones that make them feel uncomfortable. Stress that they can and should always come to you if someone has been touching them in a bad way. Teach them to stay away from and tell you about anyone who makes them feel uneasy or who asks them to keep secrets.
Find teachable moments throughout the day. For example, if you are in a crowded area, ask your child who they would go to if they got separated from you.
Use role-plays and set up scenarios to test your child’s knowledge. Research shows that skills do not generalize without practicing in the real world environment.
Remind your child that regular rules don’t apply in dangerous situations. It is okay to shout or fight. They will not get in trouble.
Involve others who are part of your child’s regular routine in your preparation and teaching, e.g. siblings, extended family, babysitters.
Seek out opportunities to interact with law enforcement, emergency personnel, and other authority figures in friendly environments such as local safety fairs. This will make it more likely that your child will respond positively to officers in emergency situations.
Consider contacting your local police and fire department to provide information about your child and their special needs. Local law enforcement agencies welcome proactive contact from families.
Consider making a flyer with your child’s picture and information to proactively distribute to your neighbors and school personnel. The flyer should note who they should get in touch with if they see your child alone.
The Child Study Center joins the autism community in New York City to support the continued search for Avonte Oquendo. If you have any information about his whereabouts, you are asked to contact the NYPD Crime Stoppers at (800) 577-TIPS, log onto crimestoppers.nyc.gov, or text CRIMES (274637) and enter TIP577.
To work with Child Study Center staff to implement a safety skills curriculum for your child, please call Intake at (646) 754-5000 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.