Ways to Keep Your Child with Autism Safe at Holiday Time
The holidays are supposed to be a time for family and friends— a chance to create some great memories. Unfortunately, for many families living with a child with autism, it can also be a tremendous source of stress because parents may need to be extra vigilant to keep their child(ren) safe.
There are changes in routines, lots of novel situations and stimulations such as family get-togethers and outings, as well as seasonal decorations, just to name a few of the potential hazards. Here are some tips for ways to keep your child with autism safe over the holidays:
1. Evaluate the Safety of Holiday Decorations
Many families celebrate their holidays by “decorating” their home. While it is beautiful and can add so much to the celebrations, it can in some cases also put your child with autism at risk for injury. Because decorating can sometimes be a risky business, it pays to be thoughtful about the potential safety hazards that may be present in the process. Consider the tips below, all while keeping in mind your unique child’s interests and areas of need when selecting your decorations:
- Forego using, or at least keep things that may hurt your child out of reach (e.g., it is easy to forget that things that light up can become warm or even hot to the touch, or that certain decorations made of glass could shatter if handled too roughly).
- Secure large items should your child knock them over or attempt to climb them;
- Reconsider decorating with small items that may become choking hazards if they are put in your child’s mouth.
- Take care with items that have long ribbons, strings or chords that could become choking or tripping hazards.
2. Be Sure to Supervise
Make sure that if you display items that may be a hazard in the environment, that you can monitor your child with autism when they are near them. Setting up your environment so that you can monitor the more “unsafe” areas more easily might involve blocking access by shutting and/or locking doors that lead to the more unsafe decorations or using gates.
This is much easier to do in your home than it is when you go to a relatives’ or friends’ home. Ask for help in supervising your child especially when in novel environments. Some families I work with will take turns with a partner or ask a friend to take turns so that when you are responsible for supervision whoever it is, is committed to being vigilant for a set amount of time.
3. Prepare for Family Outings and Get Togethers
In many cases, going to a family get together or outing over the holidays can be much less stressful if there is a certain amount of preparation before you go. Some children with autism may put themselves at risk when experiencing things that may make them uncomfortable. Reducing some of the potential discomfort that your child with autism may experience in a novel environment over the holidays may help keep your child safe. Consider the tips below, all while keeping in mind your unique child’s interests and areas of need when deciding how and/or what to prepare for a family gathering or outing:
- If there is a chance your child will not respond well to the food that is present at a family gathering or outing make sure you bring enough of the things that they do enjoy.
- Can you practice certain “rituals” before you get there (e.g., how to open a present and wait a turn or how to play a game that may be part of the family gathering)?
- Reach out to the host and see if there is a quiet space that you can take your child with autism should they need a break from all of the excitement.
- Bring a few items that your child with autism is familiar with and comfortable interacting with (e.g., tablet, favorite toys or puzzles) that he/she can use while in the novel environment.
4. Safety Skills to Start
- Following simple instructions like “stop,” “come here,” “wait,” and “stay with me,” will help you keep your child with autism when out and about and even in your home. If they pick up something that is not safe, you can ask them to “stop” or if they start to run and separate themselves from you responding to “stop” could also save his/her life. The key with these types of instructions is to start simple (e.g., ask them to “stop” while standing beside you and no big enticing item to distract them, and gradually make it more and more challenging (e.g., with something enticing in his/her presence and from a greater distance). It is absolutely critical to make sure you get to the point where they are able to do it when they need to most (e.g., when they are putting themselves in danger, and can respond to you from a distance in the presence of something enticing).
- Being able to identify if something is safe or unsafe is important because there are multiple toxic substances in the home including detergents, vitamins and medicines but also personal hygiene products (e.g., facial cleansers and makeup). Teaching your child that certain products are not safe and what to do if they encounter an unsafe product. Teaching them to leave it alone and go and find an adult to contend with it has been shown to be an effective way to keep kids with autism safe. The key is to show them what to do, and then let them practice in a safe and controlled way.
- Practice good safety hygiene—what I mean by this is to make safety a consideration in all of your routines but particularly when it comes to personal hygiene practices. Teach them that they only get dressed and undressed in the presence of certain people (e.g., family or a doctor), that they should shut the door when using the washroom, that it is ok to say “no” to someone who asks them to undress. It is unfortunate but in many instances children with autism are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and it occurs more often with someone that they may already be familiar with. Setting limits on these types of routines will help make your child with autism less vulnerable.
Wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday!
This article was featured in Issue 55 – Celebrating with the People We Love