Keeping your autistic child safe: Practical tips for parents
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.
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."
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.
Around 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.)
"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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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