Keeping Your
Autistic Child Safe

For most people, home is their castle. As a parent of a child with autism, your home more often becomes your fortress. And carefree trips to the zoo or the park? They're not going to happen -- not without major planning and precautions, anyhow. But that doesn't mean you have to live in a constant state of stress and fear. Find out what some other parents have done to keep their autistic children safe -- and what you can do, too.

Kids with autism often run away

Lisa Moriarty is mom to autistic twin boys, Stephen and Jack, and takes all kinds of precautions to keep her sons out of harm's way: "We have a latch on the closet door to make sure they don't get into anything... an alarm system at the house so we have the alert chime on the door so I know if it opens, and all medication is kept in a central location in the house so that no one has meds that may be left within reach."

Boy jumping

Moriarty's biggest day-to-day safety concern: Keeping the boys safe in their room at night when she's asleep and not watching them, especially because, she says, "We never know what they will do next."

She's not alone. Denise Norton of Mt Gambier, South Australia, is the mother of 7-year-old Blair, a boy with autism. Her son is a "runner" -- he runs or wanders off without even any comprehension of the possible danger -- and so Denise knows all about the panic that can ensue when a child disappears. "When stressed, he will run and hide, where ever he can, and as far away as he can," she says. "The worst time was when he hid in an unlocked car on a 42 degree Celsius [107.6 degrees Fahrenheit] summer day, I found him on the verge of unconsciousness -- that was frightening."

In response, her family regularly tries to to teach Blair safe places to hide out when he gets stressed, but, as she says, "it's a work in progress."

And then there are stories with truly tragic endings. "Kedan, my precious son, was out of my sight for five minutes watching TV. Five short minutes and my life is forever changed now," wrote SheKnows community member Sandra. She lost her autistic son Kedan when he escaped from the house and followed his ball into a nearby pond.

Kedan's dad found him not even five minutes later... but the boy had already drowned. The EMTs worked on the almost 5-year-old for an hour, but were unable to revive him. "I want to see him and hug him so badly but I can't. I cry constantly wishing I could hold him again." (Read Sandra's heartbreaking message board post about the tragedy here.)

Sadly, this is just one of several similar stories that have been in the news each of the past few years. While most children are drawn to water, many autistic children seem even more fascinated by it -- and they're also fearless. So special care needs to be taken around pools, ponds, lakes, fountains, hot tubs, bathtubs and even buckets -- and teaching your child to swim should be an early priority.

Securing your home

If you have a child with autism and are looking for ways to up your home's safety quotient, here's a look at what some other parents are doing -- and what you might want to consider.

Autism - experience, advice, awareness

Padlock bullet pointAround the house:
Keeping your autistic child safe isn't just about keeping him in -- you also need to keep him (or her) protected while inside. That means locking doors from the outside when a room is empty, using special latches on bathroom doors and perhaps also a toilet lock, and ensuring he can't access the garage, an attic or crawlspace.

Don't forget about other basic safety precautions -- much as one would use for a neurotypical toddler. You'll want to consider things like adding cabinet safety latches, no-pinch drawer closures, electrical outlet covers, installing window guards, ensuring picture frames are made of plastic and not glass, attaching dressers and tall furniture to the wall (to prevent tipping), making sure all your smoke detectors are working and so forth. (Get more child safety tips here.)

Padlock bullet pointBedroom:
"Middle-of-the night wandering" is common among children with autism. If your child roams at night, you may want to secure the room at bedtime by locking the bedroom door from the outside. Yes, it may feel like you're imprisoning your child, but better safe than sorry. Additionally, you need your rest; tomorrow is another exhausting day. Caution: Be sure you have quick access to the room in the event of a fire or other emergency.

Entryway safety gates (baby gates) may also be useful. For several years now, SheKnows editor Nancy Price has been able to use two baby gates stacked high in the doorway to keep her son secure at night.

Other parents have successfully used the gate method, too. "There is a safety gate on the doorway so that they don't leave the room unless we are awake and watching them," Moriarty says of her sons. In addition, she says, "The upstairs is also gated off so that they are not unsupervised up there." And when the kids have outgrown the gates, she plans to replace at least of one them with a Dutch door -- which she hopes will serve its purpose for at least a few years.

Padlock bullet pointFurniture arrangement:
Be sure that furniture placement isn't allowing easy access to windows, door locks or other means for your child to escape. In addition, if your child frequently runs out of a room via a predictable path, try to arrange the furniture so that he or she is unable to easily escape.

Padlock bullet pointWindows:
If your child likes to climb out of windows, install window locks (available at your local hardware or home improvement store). If your child breaks glass or pounds on the windows, replace the glass panes with Plexiglas to prevent injury and elopement.

Padlock bullet pointExterior doors:
Place extra locks on doors that provide entry to or exit from the home. Having locks that are high and out of children's reach can prevent them from exiting the house unsupervised. Jon Baker of Chandler, Arizona, uses keyed deadbolts on all the doors of his home, because his son, Willy, who has severe autism, "has escaped a few times." (You will need to weigh the pros and cons of different types of locks, with consideration to how you and your family will be able to evacuate your home in case of emergency.)

Still, locks alone won't always do the job. "What's hard for outsiders to understand is that these kids may not be able to carry on a conversation, but they often make up for that lack of skills in other ways," says the mother of an autistic gradeschooler. "Some of these children can be remarkably adept at doing things like using electronic equipment, playing videogames and building complex sculptures with Legos. But in many cases, that kind of skill goes hand-in-hand with the ability to figure out how to defeat a lock."

Padlock bullet pointAlarms:
Summer Infant Baby's Quiet Sounds Color Handheld Video Monitor Once your house is secure, you still need a way to discern when your child has left the house – just in case. A battery-operated doorbell chime on exterior doors may work just as effectively as a pricey home alarm system. Moriarty keeps alert chimes on her doors for added comfort. (Just keep in mind that the doorbell chime works only if the doors are left closed when not in use.) If you feel uncomfortable securing your home yourself or don't quite know where to begin, consider contacting a professional locksmith, security company or home improvement professional.

Padlock bullet pointMonitoring:
You have the locks, the fences, the alarms. Still, knowing where your child is at all times is key to making sure you don't launch into panic mode the moment he or she seems to be gone!

To cut down on that kind of stress, one mom uses a video baby monitor to keep an eye on her son at night. "We have the camera mounted high in the corner so we can see his entire bedroom. So now for the past two-plus years, we've been able to check on him a couple times a night without even getting out of bed," she says. "I sometimes also use it during the day when he's awake, just to know what he's up to."

Padlock bullet pointFencing:
Children on the autistic spectrum often like to be outside and in motion, so leaving the home to play outside is common. A high fence surrounding your yard may prevent escape artists from leaving your grounds once outdoors. With the added sense of security this should bring, you'll have a better chance of enjoying playtime. (Of course, pools and other water features should always be fenced; buckets, tubs and anything that contains even a few gallons of water ought to be emptied.)

ON THE NEXT PAGE: Ways to find your child if he gets lost & a helpful resource list


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Comments on "Keeping your autistic child safe: Practical tips for parents"

Erica Knutson August 28, 2013 | 12:37 AM

THANK YOU, THANK YOU... For this awesome information regarding safety for children with autism. Now my family will know how serious this really, and maybe will not just see me as an over reacting mom. I will be leaving my 3 year old daughter with my sister in law for 3 days ( husbands request) while I attend a 3 day education training. I have typed out instructions and care for my daughter, along with explaining the importance of locking and securing the home. The response from them is as if I telling them how to watch over any other normal kid. They seem to be blind and unreceptive to her condition. Hopefully after sending her this article, she will understand that she won't be babysitting just a normal kid.

Sherry Friis August 14, 2013 | 5:14 AM

Cara: I am a 60 year old grandmother of a 7 year old autistic granddaughter, who lives with her parents and siblings in another state. I recently entered an insurance company and heard "Tinker Bell" bells going off, and felt that I had just arrived in heaven! lol. I looked up, and above the door they had hung a small wind chime with pretty noises! I thought "What a good idea!" I am sending some wind chimes and a simple screw into the ceiling cup hook to my daughter to put above any doors she deems necessary! The kid can't reach the ceiling yet, and it will help her know in a sweet way that her little darling has escaped! I hope this helps!

Mary Jo Grandma of Michael June 10, 2013 | 6:42 AM

I am so so glad to read this web site. You all have given me ideas and I have been floundering for 9 long years doing everything wrong at first, being afraid to keep michael when he became stronger than me. Now many of my questions have been answered and I just am grateful to all of you for posting. Michael is a wonderful, intelligent boy who loves his grandma very much but I haven't kept him in a while because I am so afraid he will get away from me. Taking a picture of him and writing on his arm are two great ways of making me feel more secure. I will still have to have someone with me that can help control him physically but it frees me up to be a little more confident that we can keep him safer.

michelle February 01, 2013 | 3:47 PM

when i take my son places (i dont have a car so often its walking or going on bus) i have him either in his pram (he almost outgrown it) or walk him with a safty harness. the one i have is almost too small, it wont fit over thick jerseys or jackets so i have to find a bigger stronger harness for him. people dont understand why i cant just walk him holding my hand without the harness, he darts and runs everywhere without looking around or knowing the dangers. if i took him to park without it he would end up getting into the duck pond or something. its hard when people dont understand but i keep doing what i know is best for my son. not nice when a strange lady comes up and accuses you of being a bad mother because your childs in a safety harness (like some dog she said) and he sits on ground and refuses to move or tries to pull the harness lead out of your hands.

michelle February 01, 2013 | 3:28 PM

such a relief to know im not alone in worrying about my 3yo autistic sons safety, i have had to get creative to keep him safe, i put a duvet cover over his mattress to stop him chewing the insides of it, a fitted sheet over the base as he had ripped the cloth cover with his teeth and extra tall metal safety gates since hes tall and likes chewing wood, if anyone can help with ways to stop him chewing wood id be very greatful as its getting serious. hes chewed a big cresent hollow out of his windowledge and even painting it with that bitter tasting stuff for stopping children biting nails hasnt stopped him chewing it and his door (its on inside of saftey gate).

Ellen October 14, 2012 | 5:13 PM

When I take my son out in public, I put an identification sticker (InchWorm will custom make labels) on the back of his shirt where he can't reach it. On that sticker I have my name and phone number. I've also taken a page out of triathletes' book- when we go to the beach, I write my phone number on his arm in sharpie marker. I also take a picture of him right before we go anywhere. That way if I lose him, I have the most current picture of him and what he's wearing in my phone.

kelseysmommie May 10, 2012 | 1:48 PM

My daughter is 3. She is driving me crazy. Ive put child locks on everything in the house. she has still figured out how to open the doors and refrigerator door. she pulls out all of the food and breaks eggs all over the place. Last week she opened the front door and took off running. I pray every day for her safety. Im losing my mind.

Christine April 02, 2012 | 8:18 PM

I tried every baby gate for the bottom stair's and my son either break's it climbs over it or rips it down. he constantly runs upstair's. I have to keep running up and down the stairs all day. does anyone have any other solutions on blocking the stair's. thank you

Surfdancer March 03, 2012 | 10:20 PM

I think its sad and unfortunate that they allowed McCormick to advertise their Shamrock Shake recipe, which includes MCCormick green food coloring in them, right next to an article on autistic kids. Am I the only one who noticed this?

Kellie January 14, 2012 | 11:36 AM

I hear you all. I have an 9 year autistic son. We have mettle latch lock w/combination lock on frig. And key lock on all doors. It feels some times like a prison. But we all know what's more important, our children. I''m also an EA for special needs. I believe I have got my best problem solving solutions there. I now face the windows pen window gazer. I have latch pin locks on that don't stop my lock smith. Kellie

Patti October 24, 2011 | 9:05 PM

I have a 3year old that although we have not had a official test done yet but her pedestrian is pretty sure she has AS. I'm nervous all the time she doesn't sleep (she will finally fall asleep around 3 in the morning and sleep till 10 am),she doesn't like other people other than dad myself sister (sometimes LOL) and grandpa so family events are really hard loud nosies send into hiding. We have a safety door knob on the inside of her room so she can't wonder the house at night her dad stays awake till she falls asleep to make sure she stays safe. We can not afford any special safety needs for her so we find little things bathroom: for now we have an eyehook lock up high that everyone knows to lock when exiting (she does try to get chairs to climb up to get it. Closest we use duck tape up high as well.Drawer and cuboards have locks in the kitchen. I'm glad she is little so these things work for us for now. She did figure out the safety door handle things so we used tape to secure it and put locks on the other bedroom doors. I also have a 14 old daughter so she needs space to be her own and has stuff that Chloe should not get at. Oh yeah I have fridge and freezer locks as well she loves the feel of the textures and coldness of different foods.....I'm so tried all the time and I get frustrated. I cry myself to sleep often wondering what I did wrong or what can I do to help her.

Lisa Wiktorek October 01, 2011 | 8:13 PM

The price you charge for NOAH's BED should be against the law!!

Wesbo September 30, 2011 | 9:02 PM

They do have different types, They have different types of mild restraints, if it is a matter of there safty, you have to protect them, I dont like any type of restraints.. There are also alarms to aleart you when he or she gets up..

Sally August 28, 2011 | 10:42 AM

My grandson, age 7 years and severely autistic, drowned recently. We are grief stricken but I need to turn this devestating sadness into action. How do we keep out children safe? How can the government assist parents? How do we provide to all families with autistic children the best technology to keep out children safe? What works best? so much more must be done and the government needs to do more.

flagyl online August 28, 2011 | 4:21 AM

Really interesting blog, keep up the good work!

noah August 23, 2011 | 7:38 PM

i am 11 years old and i have 2 autistic brothers and they wacth movies and they copy every word like 2 months ago my 4 year old brother elijah. he can talk but he will right the words down in his brain! there was a U.F.O crashed in to a truck and the guy said my god***** truck and he said that word he goes "oh this is my god**** truck" then my mom turns her head streight 180 degrees "WHAT" she said eligah goes " oh momy this in my god**** truck" and isaiah age 6 i was wacthing a spiderman game walkthrough " a charicter goes "the swicth turn off the swicth" and he isaiah has ben saying that over and over for the past 2 months and me not to mention i have a little of autisim but the only thing is asburgers and when i was like 7 i would talk to some one then stay quit for like 5 minniuts then be chatter but i all cool now your favrot preeteen in amarican Noah rhoden :)

Jen June 09, 2011 | 7:24 PM

Keeping them in the house: Deadbolt, double key. Keep key around your neck during day, hidden by your bed at night. Keeping them from getting at the windows: Solid wooden shutters INSIDE with two locks - one school combonation type, the other a regular latch with keylock. Keeping them from getting out a sliding glass door - bar lock, key lock, add a whistle alarm. The whistle alarm is very high pitched, and if your child dislikes loud noises, this will do the trick. Bedroom at night: Half door (I made ours), with lock on the outside. Then increase it to a 3/4 door as they get taller. Get a Nickel Bed for traveling. Once they figure out how to get out the 3/4 door - and they will - full door with a cute little window cut into it thats too big for them to get out of, too hight up to reach the lock on the outside, but always open to of course be able to hear them and be availble for them - and they will feel secure being able to see/hear you and be seen/heard.

cara February 11, 2011 | 7:35 AM

i need help with an alarm system that my 4 yr old wont rip off/push the alarm button ...high functioning autism/very brilliant and he knows how to trick and pull off the alarms i was wondering if anyone has had good luck with a company or knows any type of alarm that will work that he cant trick..i dont want to go with adt or a normal high security system due to i cant afford a monthly fee...need door alarms and window alarms for indoors... i want my bed back i cant put him in his own room until i find something due to him getting up and getting into stuff or going outside naked...anyone have a system that will alert you when a door is opened or alarm is tricked..lookin over the net not having allot of luck

Susana Guadalupe January 17, 2011 | 2:00 PM

Can anyone tell me what to do to preven my 5 year old daughter from breaking her bed? I had 2 set of matresses in her room and she broken both of the set. Can somebody has a sujestion in this matter I will apresiate alot for the info. Thanks, desprerate mom

Jennifer April 28, 2010 | 4:04 PM

I agree-I wish, too, that they had mentioned service dogs. We applied for and raised money and received a service dog for our twin boys who are 7 and who both have autism. He has enabled us to go and do and experience life as a family and for me to take the boys out alone for brief periods, too. This is vital when parents work opposite shifts or one is not always available to help.

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