One of the stats that really stood out to me from Dennis Debbaubt’s Autism Risk & Safety Management Seminar that I attended is the fact that ASD people, throughout their lifetimes, have up to seven times more contact with law enforcement than the general population. Add to that figure the fact that there is a deficit of training for interactions with ASD people, and we have a gap that needs to be filled. Dennis Debbaubt’s training seminars help to fill that gap, but what’s equally important is parents’ willingness to disclose information about their child. We all value our privacy - and need it to protect our children. But if you want to upgrade safety, Dennis points out, you have to give up a little privacy.
The first thing you can do in your community to help manage risk is to reach out and get to know your neighbors. It is undeniable that the behaviors and characteristics of autism have the potential to attract attention from the public. By disclosing to your neighbors the fact that your child has autism, you will help avoid problems down the road. Talking with your neighbors about your child will tell them that you are approachable and responsible. Your neighbors will know the reason for any unusual behaviors they might see, and they can notify you first if they see your child taking off clothes outside (Nigel has done this), wandering (this too), or destroying property (um, no comment). Knowing your neighbors can also lead to better social interactions for your ASD child, especially when they are older and people would expect them to be more socially adept. If your neighbors know about your child’s autism, they will usually be more understanding. [ Note: Some parents fear that this disclosure would increase their child's risk for abduction or sexual abuse. Dennis Debbaubt has researched this topic, and for parents who are concerned, he recommends reading Ken Lanning's booklet, Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis, which provides characteristics of pedophiles, among other investigative strategies. It was written as a tool for law enforcement officers and child-protection professionals, but it has helpful information for parents who want to know.]
The next thing you can do in your community is to have risk and safety concerns written into your child’s IEP, if you have not already. At your IEP meeting, discuss with the teachers and therapists what the de-escalation plan is for your child, and what they should do if your child is not able to de-escalate. This should be a mandatory part of all IEPs, so that we don’t continue to read news stories about ASD children and teens being arrested and handcuffed because of a sensory meltdown. Teachers, aides, and therapists are our children’s primary caregivers when they’re at school - they need plans in place to help care for your individual child the best way possible, especially in difficult situations. Schools can also plan educational opportunities for children to learn to recognize and be comfortable with law enforcement and emergency services personnel out in the community, which will help in an emergency situation. These field trips will also help your local law enforcement and emergency services personnel to become familiar with the ASD children in your community and how best to communicate with them and help them.
Another area of concern that can be addressed at school and written into the IEP is “social safety” teaching. Social stories can be used to teach children and teens about important things like public restroom “etiquette” for their safety, and learning appropriate behavior for stores, hospitals, airports, etc. Equally important is being able to recognize “false friends,” people who will target both verbal and nonverbal ASD individuals because they are vulnerable. Our ASD kids can be tricked into doing inappropriate or unlawful things without their understanding, and when law enforcement arrives on the scene, the ASD individual is left holding the bag. As the parent of a verbal autistic 14-year-old, this is one of my greatest concerns. My son is starting to want to be independent, but he doesn’t have the ability to know when people are using him or to avoid questionable situations. Additionally, if he is walking down the street and sees a broken window or some used fireworks or a dead animal or anything unusual that catches his eye, he will stop to investigate for a lengthy time period, and could easily be blamed for whatever occurred, especially since he avoids eye contact when speaking to people and can “act out” when nervous or under stress, making himself look suspicious or like he’s on drugs.
That brings us to the final topic for things you can do in your community for your child’s safety. We can’t expect police to field-diagnose a person with autism, so we need to have a way to notify them. Dennis recommends that either you, or your semi-independent older child/teen, carry a handout card. The handout card should be typed, approximately the size of a business card, and able to be copied and laminated. It should tell the officers that they are interacting with a person with autism and indicate that the person (your child) will be anxious in new situations with new people, will avoid eye contact, may or may not be able to speak, needs to hear calm, direct language avoiding slang and sarcasm, needs extra time to answer questions and may repeat what is said to them, may rock, pace, or engage in self-stimulatory behavior, may make inappropriate comments or gestures, may give a false confession, and may display extreme distress such as yelling, crying, or physical agitation. It’s also important to have the handout card mention sensory issues with sound, lights, or touch, or a fear of dogs. It should also suggest removing your child from areas that may aggravate sensory issues and escalate behavior. The card should note if your child is prone to seizures and what the officer should do if one occurs. Most importantly, the card should list contact information for parents, caregivers, therapists, or doctors. If your child or teen is at a point where they are out in the community independently, even for a short time, carrying a handout card is a must. Teach them not to run from police officers, to tell the officer that they have autism or Asperger’s, and to say that they have a medical card to give to the officer, but to wait until the officer tells them it’s okay to get the card before they reach for it.
Learning about handout cards really helped to put my mind at ease with my son being alone in the community more often as he nears adulthood. I’ll always worry - that’s a given - but at least I know that there’s a tool in place that can help him in certain situations. Dennis suggests that handout cards can also be helpful for nonverbal individuals when combined with an ID bracelet. These are simple, effective tools for helping to keep our ASD children safe in our community. Using these tools, along with being willing to disclose information to our neighbors and working with the schools to promote safety awareness, will help to manage risk and give us a little more peace of mind.