Essential Tips for Creating a Safe Environment for Your Child with Autism

For most parents, childproofing the home is about little more than restricting access to potential hazards. It’s a problem that can be solved in an afternoon with a trip to Target to buy some cabinet locks and a baby gate or two. Ensuring your home is a safe environment where kids can be kids without having to worry about them getting into something poisonous or tumbling down the stairs is parenting 101.

But as every parent with a child with autism knows, when it comes to ASD, there is never a single solution that works for all kids. As you approach your childproofing project, you’ve also got to contend with the added challenge of considering the severity of your child’s condition, the degree of cognitive impairment, if any, and the unique behaviors your child exhibits.

Bottom line is that preparing your home with a child with autism in mind will usually go beyond the standard practices of installing locks, barricades and hiding household cleaners. Instead of just thinking in terms of restricting access to things that might be harmful, you might start thinking of it as a process of adapting the home to your child’s needs. After all, a child with autism may also need adjustments to other things in their environment to ensure they feel emotionally secure.

Designing a home and a routine with a toddler with ASD in mind is as much about basic safety as it is about accounting for their unique behaviors and psychological needs. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are steps you can take to achieve the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you thought of everything. And the more confidant you are that you’ve done everything you can, the more you’ll be able to focus on the real work of nurturing and supporting the emotional and psycho-social development of your child.

These suggestions will put you well on your way to creating a safer, more comfortable environment for your child with autism.

  1. Sophisticated Locks May Be Necessary to Prevent Wandering

    Your child is curious. They love to explore and that seems to mean getting into anything and everything they’re not supposed to! While autism expresses itself differently in different children, perhaps yours is singularly determined to open every drawer, cupboard, and door in your home.

    Household cleaners are an obvious danger to any child. So are lawn fertilizers, gas for the mower, paints, and bug spray. Any chemical in and around your house has the potential to become attractive to your child. It may be a good idea to choose one place in the garage – outside of your child’s normal daily environment – to lock and secure all your chemicals.

    Any reasonable parent keeps household medicines out of the reach of children. Your child may need daily medications and keeping them handy in a kitchen cupboard or medicine cabinet may be tempting. The truth is, even with a latch, those cupboards are something your child may try to explore.

    Like a little Houdini, your child may be clever enough to learn how to undo some of the simpler childproof locks. If that’s the case, choosing locking mechanisms that are more sophisticated is definitely a good idea.

    Often the need to invest in more sophisticated locks goes beyond simple childproofing measures. As your child enters early adolescence, you may need to take steps to restrict wandering if they struggle to understand safe boundaries or refuse to stay out of the street. In the most extreme cases, a double-keyed dead bolt on access doors is the only solution.

    Wandering or “elopement,” is a serious problem and has led to many deaths in the autism community. In 2016 a twelve-year-old boy with autism in Orange County, California wandered from home and was struck and killed by a truck. In 2015 a nine-year-old boy with autism wandered from his Tennessee home and was hit by a train and died.

    These aren’t isolated incidents. According to the National Autism Association about half of all kids with autism wander and at some point try to escape the safety of their own homes.

  1. Creating a Structured Environment with Neurotypical Kids and Kids with ASD in Mind

    All kids are prone to tantrums and acting out. But with kids on the spectrum, these outbursts may be more frequent and unpredictable. In the worst cases, a meltdown may even involve actual violence and aggression towards others. In extreme cases like this, protecting everybody in the house becomes an imperative.

    It’s important to be hyper-vigilant if there is any tendency toward aggression, and to gauge the reactions of your child when they are stressed. Being aware of their temperament and anger is critical to the safety of your child with autism, siblings and caregivers alike.

    Fighting back might be a natural reaction from the other children in your home. They may see this behavior as permission to act out too, a situation that could quickly spiral out of control and end badly for everybody involved.

    Raising both a neurotypical youngster and a child on the spectrum presents some very unique challenges. You can’t always be judicious about the way you dispense discipline. When your neurotypical child is done stomping and screaming about how, ‘life isn’t fair,’ it may be a good time to agree and remind them that the additional privileges they enjoy also come with some additional expectations.

    Taking steps to prevent a meltdown before it occurs is always the best bet, for you, your child with ASD and their brother or sister.

    Your child thrives on structure. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH), children with ASD find comfort in patterns and derive a feeling of security from regular, unbroken routines. Having a specific time for each daily event will allow your child to feel more relaxed and capable of coping even when things get hectic.

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  1. Creating a Quiet Space Especially for Your Child with Autism

    When a child with autism gets over-stimulated they tend to act out in one way or another. With some, this takes the form of disturbing, self-destructive behaviors like head-banging or biting and scratching themselves.

    Sensory breaks will give your child a chance to regroup and refocus. When they are upset and a time-out is necessary, it doesn’t need to be done as a way to punish the child so much as a way to refocus their energy and take their attention off of external stimuli. The best solution isn’t to put them in a corner, it’s to redirect them to a dedicated space that is all their own where they can enjoy a moment of quiet and solitude away from siblings and other activity.

    Refocusing your child’s energy and diverting their attention with a moment of quiet will not only help avert a complete meltdown, but consistently redirecting them to a dedicated space when things start getting crazy will eventually change the way they react to stressful situations. This is a tried and tested technique used in applied behavior analysis therapy. Antisocial and self-destructive behaviors associated with autism can be corrected, especially with consistent and ongoing support in the home from parents and caregivers.

    A quiet low-light area with few decorations and no hard surfaces can bring a sense of calm. Soft pillows, a few favorite toys and blankets are some of the things you can use to create such a space. You may be able to leave your child to their own devices and give them an opportunity to practice autonomy while you get a little break yourself. This will actually teach them a skill they will eventually be able to use on their own to cope with intense situations they encounter outside the home. Creating a space that is designed with your child’s unique emotional needs in mind can mean the difference between chaos and peace in your household.

  1. Regular Household Hazards are Even More of a Risk for Children with ASD

    Does your coffee table have sharp edges? What about your beautiful granite kitchen island?

    Children with autism sometimes have sensory problems that stem from a dysfunction of the central nervous system. Proprioception refers to functions of the muscles, joints, and tendons that allow a person to have an awareness of body position in the space around them. Issues with proprioception can make it impossible for a person to gauge where they are in relation to, say, a piece of furniture or a wall. Difficulty with proprioception creates clumsiness; you may have already noticed your child haphazardly colliding with objects. Countertops, bookshelves and the dining room table could all become potential hazards if this is the case.

    Installing rubber bumpers is a simple solution that could avoid a trip to the ER, and securing tall furnishings to the wall will help ensure they won’t tip and fall in the event your child decides to climb your grandma’s antique armoire.

    Most people are attracted to water. That’s why hotel rooms with ocean views cost more than those with city views. For a child with autism, water can be a wonderful resource in the right circumstance, and a tragic one when it goes wrong. Read any ASD parenting forum and you’ll find parents discussing their child’s fascination with water. Maybe it’s the soothing feel of water enveloping the body or the calming way flowing water sounds that creates the fixation.

    The reasons aren’t well understood, but the dangers are: According to the National Autism Association, drowning is one of the leading causes of death among people with autism.

    Using a rigid pool cover, fencing the pool area, adding an alarm on the gate, and locking the latch with a keyed lock may sound like a complete lockdown on fun, but when you aren’t supervising the pool, it could be the very thing that saves your child’s life.

    You don’t have a pool. That helps. But don’t overlook the importance of restricting access to faucets with hot water, fountains, drainage ditches, livestock watering tubs, or bathtubs. Something that may seem harmless – like a kitchen faucet – could prove to be a source of burns for your child.

    The bathroom is like a playground for a child on the spectrum with a fixation on water. There’s also the added danger that comes with electric blow dryers and curling irons. If a buzzing, windy hair dryer is too much for your child to resist, keep your appliances out of reach and put an outside lock on the bathroom door.

  1. Teaching Your Child Not to Be Too Trusting of Strangers

    As your child gets older, they are likely to respond to someone knocking on the door or ringing the bell. This may not be something most people think about when considering household safety, but for parents of kids with ASD this comes with some serious risks.

    According to the British Psychological Society, children with ASD are very trusting; too trusting, in fact. Research has found that they are less capable of determining whether a person can be trusted or not based on evaluating facial expressions. The ability to read a person’s intentions by looking at their face is a kind of intuitive judgment that is intrinsic to neurotypical children, but without it, kids on the spectrum are often incapable of determining whether or not a person they meet intends them harm. Of course, the person at the door is likely just a neighbor saying hello, but that’s not a risk you want to take.

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    It’s important to work with your child to establish a better awareness of potential dangers, and protocols for dealing with strangers. Teaching your child how to identify who they can trust will not only keep them safe at home, it will be something that serves them their entire lives, even into adulthood, and especially if they go on to live independently.