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Focus on Safety at ASNC Conference


The Autism Society of North Carolina held its annual conference March 11-12 in Charlotte. We have been sharing information from conference presentations in occasional blog posts.

Nancy Nestor and Nancy Popkin, two Charlotte-area Autism Resource Specialists, presented a session titled “Staying Two Steps Ahead: Safety Considerations for Caregivers,” on the second day of the conference.

Staying safe encompasses all aspects of life, and accommodations can be made for a multitude of environments; however, both presenters emphasized the importance of teaching safety skills (and any other skill) in the home first. A person’s home provides a desired level of comfort and control, which helps lead to more successful skill development that can then be taken into the community.

It’s important to be prepared and understand key safety measures in a variety of situations, in particular those that can happen without warning. What should families consider when it comes to safety for their loved ones with autism?

  • Communication
  • Judgment
  • Sensory issues
  • Difficulty with/level of problem-solving
  • Learning differences

These five considerations help determine how an individual might develop the basic skills that are key to ensuring safety: following directions, transitioning, and managing behavior.

Following Directions

One of the main ways we stay safe is by following safety protocols, or rules. For individuals with autism, this can present a challenge, which is why it is important to establish a method for following directions. Most commonly, families employ a visual schedule to aid their loved one in understanding what is happening at what time and what steps need to be taken depending on the situation. In the summer 2015 Spectrum magazine, Nancy Popkin described her own experiences with developing visual schedules for her son and how vital they have been toward his success in all areas of his life. When teaching safety, using schedules helps individuals with autism anticipate the circumstances before they happen and make safe decisions.

Transitions and Managing Behavior

Learning to follow directions and anticipating future circumstances will aid in a person’s ability to then handle transitions between environments as well as manage his or her behavioral response. The following tips will help with easing transitions and better preparing you to work through challenging behaviors.

  • Plan ahead and have a plan B. Circumstances can change quickly, so it’s helpful to have alternate plans lined up. This can easily be communicated with a visual schedule.
  • Be prepared and proactive. Bring a community bag that contains books, favorite toys, snacks, water, a change of clothes, etc. This bag essentially contains anything that might be helpful if an unexpected event or transition occurs or you need to divert attention away from a situation.

Fire and Emergency Safety

In the case of an emergency such as a fire, it is important that the individual with autism knows what to do and the first responders understand how to interact with and ultimately help the individual. The speakers shared the following important tips:

  • Schedule a visit with your local first responders and have your loved one meet them. This gives them an increased familiarity with your family and your child and his or her needs should they ever come to your home. It also helps your child become more comfortable with the first responders and their equipment.
  • Create an exit plan (employing appropriate communication/visual tools) and go over the plan. This can include multiple drill rehearsals – you want to make sure that the plan will be followed during an emergency.
  • Safeguard and secure hazardous items, either in locked cabinets or out of reach.
  • For more fire safety-specific information for individuals with autism, visit the National Fire Protection Association’s website.

Wandering Safety

One of the keys to safety is planning ahead and being aware of future surroundings, particularly if you have a loved one who tends to elope or wander. Here are several ways to help prevent wandering:

  • Secure your home, including windows, doors, and any other exit.
  • Place visual aids such as stop signs on exits in the home.
  • Avoid or cut short difficult situations that might trigger your loved one.
  • Scope out new environments outside of the home ahead of time – use apps such as Google Earth to see the potential geographic hazards.
  • Inform neighbors and community members about the potential situation and let them know the protocol if this were to happen.
  • Project Lifesaver or a similar tracking device is extremely helpful in located individuals who are missing from their home, working also to inform law enforcement.

School Safety

There are a variety of safety concerns in a school setting, despite the structured environment:

  • Cyberbullying and bullying. ASNC offers information on how to identify and approach a problem with the Bullying Toolkit.
  • Bus Safety – if your loved one rides the school bus, it’s important for the driver as well as any other support staff to understand his or her communication styles and that you take the time to go over the directions for staying safe.
  • Include safety and behavior goals as part of the IEP and work to teach the individual the rules instead of just having them follow them. If the individual has inappropriate behaviors that are in violation of the school rules, the Behavior & the IEP Toolkit provides more detailed information on the school disciplinary process and on how to address these behaviors.

 Other considerations

  • Bathroom etiquette: What is considered inappropriate behavior when using the bathroom in public?
  • How to respond to law enforcement: Different situations involving law enforcement require different responses and follow-up (e.g. a speeding ticket versus an emergency). Remember, law enforcement follow rigid protocols that might not consider the needs of someone with autism.
  • Self-disclosure: For individuals with autism, it’s important to teach the appropriate who, when, and how of disclosing their autism. Without these considerations, your loved one may inappropriately disclose this information to someone who is trying to take advantage of or harm him or her.

Nancy Nestor and Nancy Popkin are both moms to young adult sons with autism and ASNC Autism Resource Specialists in the Charlotte region. They can be reached at and or 704-894-9678. If you would like to learn more about safety in the community, see ASNC’s website.

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