Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are at-risk when it comes to safety. The list of worries is long, no matter the age of the persons impacted. Some families are too afraid to even think about these issues. Fear may keep others awake at night, worrying about what might happen. Will my child wander off? Is my student safe near water? How can I prepare my loved one for a disaster or other emergency? Does the teen or adult in my care know how to interact safely with law enforcement? Unfortunately, many caregivers and teachers have no safety plan in place.

Safety is too important to leave to chance! Now is the time to shift mental energy from worrying into creating a proactive safety plan. Here are six helpful tips to help you development a sound emergency plan. Let these ideas and resources inspire you to take steps towards a safer future for those on the spectrum from pre-school age to adult. Get started today!

  1. Prioritize Safety. Identify what the individual needs to know to be safe. Then find the people and resources to help you teach him or her. Ask yourself: When are you on high alert, actively preventing the person from doing something dangerous? Would he run into the street if you were not there to stop him? Is she attracted to water? The answers to these questions show you what the child or adult needs to learn.

We must always be vigilant to protect our children and adults, but preventing something dangerous from happening is not the same as teaching safe behavior. For example, preventing someone from running into the street is not the same as teaching the person to cross the street safely. So ask yourself: “What safety skills does this individual need to learn?”

Here are examples of some important skills to prioritize:

  • Respond to “stop” and “go”
  • Recognize personal space and boundaries
  • Learn to swim
  • Take no for an answer
  • Ask for help
  • Understand “mine” and “not mine”

What pressing need does the child/adult have? Did an incident just happen? Remember that most people with ASD do not learn through talking or explanations; they will need explicit teaching and practice! Tell someone who can help. If you can start teaching safety skills from a young age, great. Safety skills will last a lifetime. But it’s never too late to get started.

Whether you are a parent or a teacher, you can focus attention on the issue of safety and add key goals to the person’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or other personal plan. You don’t have to wait for an annual meeting to bring up safety needs or add goals to the plan. Bring up the subject at any time. Safety goals are also ideal for transition plans to help a young person become a safe adult. Once a safety goal is part of the plan, attention and resources can be focused on teaching safety skills at home and in the community.

  1. Expand Your Safety Net. Talk to your neighbors to let them know about the person’s special needs, especially if there is a danger of wandering. Ask them to help you keep watch, and to contact you right away if they see the child or adult unsupervised. Learn about new safety resources for the home, including options like number-pad door locks.
  2. Pinpoint Places. Identify favorite places and familiar routes the person takes when leaving home, school or work. Keep this information handy. The first question officers often ask if someone goes missing is, “Which way does the person usually go when they leave here?” It is better to be prepared with a list of places than to try and think of the answers in a crisis. If the person is drawn to water you will also want to print out a satellite map of the area near home, school and/or work showing all nearby bodies of water, man-made or natural, including pools, lakes, streams, storm drains etc.
  3. Organize Information. No matter what the emergency, first responders need certain specific information right away, such as the person’s photograph, description, special needs and medication list. Police and other first responders also need to know how to interact and communicate with the person they are trying to help. To save time during the information-gathering process, you can record and organize essential information about your loved one or student. Having information at the ready can help police and first responders respond more quickly and effectively in any situation.
  4. ID Me. Make sure the person carries or wears some kind of identification that indicates their exceptional needs. This is especially crucial for those who cannot identify themselves verbally. Police are trained to look for medical alert jewelry, so why isn’t everyone wearing it? Your child or adult might not have tolerated old-school medical alert jewelry in the past, but there are many new alternative materials and styles. There are many choices online, or as close as your neighborhood pharmacy. Some children or adults might benefit from high-tech tracking devices. Others may need to carry and learn to safely show a “self-disclosure card,” a tool that informs others about their needs.
  5. Teach Teens and Adults with Autism to Interact Safely with Police. Parents and teachers of individuals with special needs should be concerned about this issue, because statistics show that that those on the spectrum are more likely than typical peers to have an encounter with law enforcement. Yet individuals with ASD may not have the communication skills or social understanding needed to interact safely with police.

It is undeniably necessary to directly and explicitly teach safe behaviors for interacting with police to teens and adults on the spectrum. This is especially true for young adults who want be more independent in the community, or plan to drive. To learn these important skills, however, individuals with ASD usually need to see things for themselves and practice repeatedly. For this reason, video modeling can be an excellent and effective tool for teaching safety skills.

Having read these seven tips, you probably agree: safety is too important to leave to chance! Doing nothing is not an option! Prioritize safety, take advantage of safety tools, and work with others to address all kinds of safety issues. You can help your child or student learn to be safe, now and in the future.

Guest blogger Emily Iland, M.A., is an award-winning author, advocate and researcher, and an adjunct professor in the department of special education at Cal State Northridge. She is the mother of a son on the autism spectrum, and creator of BE SAFE: The Movie. She travels across the country to bring the disability community and local police together to learn from one another at interactive screenings of BE SAFE The Movie. Contact her at