Autism is known as a ‘Spectrum’ disorder as there is wide variation in characteristic symptoms and severity found among children. One of the common symptoms seen in diverse severity is the child’s ability to properly function in various aspects of life like school, work or even simply outside the safety zone of their home. With the ever increase in crime related to children, as a child grows, learning safety skills becomes of utmost importance. These skills should be a part of their day to day learning as it is difficult to be with them all the time especially when they are reach adolescence. Simple skills like walking across the street safely, dealing with strangers, what to do when lost or how to ask for help when in an unfamiliar situation are few examples of them. For obvious reasons, it also is of paramount importance when a child with Autism is concerned as these children could be at an increased risk to find themselves in an unsafe situation.
Here are some suggestions which can be helpful to teach the child how to keep themselves safe.
1. Capitalize of the existing skills: Teaching a new skills to a child with Autism can be a challenging task. Therefore, it is important to remember that teaching a new skills should be build upon the existing skills. In simple words, we should make sure that the child has all the necessary prerequisite to learn this new and very important skill rather. Some of the necessary skills that should be taught to the child before teaching safety skills are –
· To follow simple one step instructions - For example to close the door when leaving the house or to ‘stop’ when a relative/friend says stop.
· To learn the ability to copy – For example for many children it much easy to learn when another individual is showing them how to perform a certain activity in action rather than just giving instructions.
· To learn how to identify strangers.
· To learn how to communicate simple request like ‘HELP’. If the child has enough verbal skills then verbally or even with the help of pictures.
If they learn these few skills before hand, it becomes less difficult to teach them the more important safety skills.
2. Break down the steps into one step at a time: Multiply instructions given to a child can be very confusing, especially to a child with Autism, it can be very overwhelming. Therefore, it becomes very important to break down the instructions being giving to the child into small simple steps so that they can learn and remember and act when it is required. Some of the skills here to be taught especially when they are in an unfamiliar surrounding are
· Saying ‘NO’ – For example when a stranger is asking them to go somewhere or offering them to eat or drink something.
· When to leave the area immediately and run to a safe place – For example if they find themselves in a remote or isolated corner, they should run to place a place where there is crowd.
· Ask for ‘HELP’ – To communicate verbally or by using a picture asking to help them.
It is very difficult to teach a child all the situation which they could find themselves in. It is important to teach them these basic steps and to act when they find themselves in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation and not wait.
3. Practice: Any teaching that is done with the child needs to be followed with enough practice. As it is impossible to cover all the scenarios, therefore its important that they practice the basic skills over and over again. Like how to communicate and ask for help, whom to ask for help.
4. Saying ‘NO’ to a stranger: To make a child independent it is very important to teach them how to take care of themselves. One of the key skills is learning when to say ‘NO’ and to whom. The child could be taught different ways in which a stranger could approach and tempt them. Some of them are –
· By asking the child to ‘come with them’
· By luring the child by presenting incentives like ‘giving them a chocolate’ or telling them that ‘the child would get a huge toy like a train’
· By approaching with an parents name like telling the child ‘ your mother/father has asked me to take you to the park’
Teaching these basic steps outlined above goes a long way to help to keep the child away from harm and keeping them safe.
Written By: -
Isha Singh - Clinical Psychologist
Director - Clinical Services, Ananya Child Development Centre.