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Stranger Danger and Autism Spectrum Disorder: What You Need To Know

November 14, 2023

When we warn our children about stranger danger, we tend to focus on random strangers and neighbors we don’t know. Unfortunately, stranger danger can come from many different places, including the Internet, our communities, or even our family. Teaching children about personal safety and who they can trust is important. Stranger danger should be the first thing we discuss with our little ones.

Stranger Danger and Autism Spectrum Disorder: What You Need To Know
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/stranger-danger-and-autism/

Parents, caregivers, doctors, and other professionals have found that teaching children that all strangers are possibly dangerous can be problematic when starting school, visiting the doctor, meeting their new occupational therapist, etc. However, all children need to know what to look for in a stranger to determine whom they can or cannot trust. This can be difficult for an autistic child.

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What is Stranger Danger?

Starting in the 1980s, the term ‘stranger danger’ was generally used to teach children that strangers can be dangerous and that they should stay away from and avoid them. It is sad that, in 2019, 421,394 missing children were reported to the police, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

However,  most missing children were taken through family abductions or were abused by a family member or someone they knew. So, to teach children that only strangers are dangerous is not a guarantee to keep the children safe, considering the statistics.

As more information is shared with parents, guardians, police officers, and others about ways to keep children safe, it is also important to teach children safety tips and what to watch out for, like different and strange behavior or someone that makes them feel uncomfortable for any reason.

Stranger Danger and Autism Challenges

The connection between stranger danger and autism is rooted in the distinctive social and communication challenges individuals with autism often face. These challenges can influence how children on the spectrum perceive and respond to safety instructions, particularly those related to interactions with strangers.

Children with autism frequently struggle to understand social norms, making distinguishing between familiar and unfamiliar people difficult. The concept of “stranger danger” relies on recognizing who may pose a potential risk, and this abstract notion can be challenging for autistic children to grasp fully.

Additionally, children with autism often think in literal terms. Stranger danger is a concept that relies on recognizing potentially unsafe social situations, and this abstraction can be challenging for children who tend to think in straightforward, literal ways.


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On top of that, many individuals with autism have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, which are essential for assessing a person’s intentions and trustworthiness. This difficulty in understanding nonverbal communication can make it challenging to judge whether a person is safe.

Stranger Danger Online

Many forget our children’s online presence when we think of stranger danger. However, based on a 2018 survey conducted by The Family Online Safety Institute, parents identified “stranger danger” scenarios as their primary concern regarding online safety.

The term “stranger danger” has traditionally been employed to educate children about physical safety by advising them to be cautious around unfamiliar individuals, as these strangers may pose a threat. In recent years, however, this problem has also found its way into our homes and can be especially challenging for families with children on the spectrum.

Online stranger danger refers to the potential risks associated with interacting with people one doesn’t know in online spaces. This is similar to the concept in the physical world, where caution is advised when dealing with unfamiliar individuals. These risks include cyberbullying, harassment, and, in some cases, contact with online predators.

Unfortunately, many children on the autism spectrum struggle with recognizing social cues in real life, which becomes an even bigger issue on social media. Because of this, autistic individuals are often targets of cyber predators who use these autistic challenges to their advantage.

It’s important to provide personalized education and support to address these challenges. Teaching specific online safety rules and engaging in role-playing exercises can enhance understanding. Parents, caregivers, and educators should work together to monitor online activities, set boundaries, and provide ongoing guidance to ensure the safety of individuals with autism online.

Safety Tips for Parents and Children

It is essential that children know the tips below as a starting point and that the conversation be open and continuous. That way, the information can stay fresh and relevant in an emergency.

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Parents need to remember that knowing what and who a stranger is, what to look for, and what to do in an emergency can be difficult for children. Keeping them safe will include ensuring, in a gentle and age-appropriate way, that children know that not all abductions occur with strangers. Talk to them about scenarios, strange behavior, and what or who a trusted adult is.

  • Parents and caregivers must know where the children are, who they are with, and how to contact them in an emergency.
  • Keep an open conversation about strangers and strange or uncomfortable behavior, and ensure the child knows they can talk anytime they need to about anything.
  • Create secret codes, handshakes, or another form of communication in case the parent or guardian cannot pick them up.
  • Remind children that they should never go anywhere alone, walk down places where they will not be seen, and not go near or get into cars with people they don’t know
  • Talk to teens, older children, and children to ensure they understand that teens get abducted, too.
  • Let children know they must stay where they are if they get separated.
  • Give children and older children a noisemaker of sorts, whether a whistle or alarm, that they can make noise if somebody were to attempt to grab them or touch them
  • Teach children how to dial 9-1-1 and when they should call the number, as well as their address and phone number, or to note where they are to tell the operator.
  • Let children and teens know where safe places are and who the safe people are, like uniformed police officers, employees with badges, etc., in case they need them.

Are Children on the Spectrum More Vulnerable?

Children with learning and developmental differences and challenges can have difficulty understanding and responding to strangers in different scenarios. For example, when autistic children interact with adults, like doctors and therapists, regularly, it may be difficult for them to understand that not all adults are a danger.

Executive function skills like remembering safety skills and strategies and understanding and maintaining the focus necessary to stay safe can be difficult for some children diagnosed with autism. Some autistic children have a harder time understanding social and emotional cues and reading body language that can help judge whether a person is a trusted adult.


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How Can Parents Protect Their Children?

Some ways parents can keep their children safe is to:

  • keep conversation open about the different types of strangers; 
  • who and what is a trusted adult, and
  • give children examples and scenarios to do if they meet a stranger.

There are many different scenarios that parents should talk to their children about. Suppose parents feel they need help teaching their children these skills. In that case, they can always ask their pediatrician or any of the therapists for ideas or to start setting up a program to help break down the different safety skills into lessons to make it easier for the child to practice and understand.

For example, during an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) session, the technician could open up a conversation about what to do if someone approaches a child they do not know and give working examples and practice through role-playing. This can help the autistic child understand, practice, and learn what to do if that scenario occurs.

Conclusion

Overall, stranger danger started to keep children safe by staying away from people they do not know. In later years, parents and professionals found it more challenging for the children to understand the difference between strangers and a trusted adult.

Teaching these skills can be more difficult if children have developmental, social, emotional, or cognitive challenges. That is why it is important to talk to the child’s doctor or therapist for ideas or therapies that make these skills and information easier to understand and practice so that the child can use them if needed.

FAQs

Q: What is “stranger danger,” and why is it relevant for individuals with autism?

A: Stranger danger refers to the concept of teaching individuals, especially children, to be cautious around strangers. It’s relevant for individuals with autism because they may have difficulty understanding social cues and discerning between safe and potentially dangerous situations

Q: How can I teach my child with autism about “stranger danger”?

A: Teaching “stranger danger” to a child with autism often involves using visual supports and social stories. These tools can help explain the concept and provide practical guidance on identifying safe adults and situations. Role-playing and consistent practice are also crucial for reinforcing these lessons.

Q: What are the key challenges individuals with autism might face in understanding “stranger danger”?

A: Some challenges individuals with ASD may encounter include difficulties with:

  • Recognizing facial expressions and body language.
  • Understanding complex social rules and expectations.
  • Generalizing safety guidelines to different situations and people.
  • Managing sensory sensitivities that can affect their perception of their surroundings.

Q: How can I tailor “stranger danger” education to my child’s needs and sensory sensitivities? 

A: Creating a personalized approach based on your child’s unique characteristics and sensory sensitivities is important. Consider their sensory preferences and aversions when crafting safety strategies.

Q: Is it possible to overemphasize “stranger danger” with a child with autism?

A: While teaching “stranger danger” is essential, balancing is crucial. Overemphasizing it can lead to increased anxiety and social isolation. Instead, focus on building your child’s self-advocacy skills and providing them with tools to recognize and respond to safe and potentially risky situations.

References:

People Smarts (Stranger Danger) – UPMCS – Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh
https://www.chp.edu/injury-prevention/safety/street/stranger-danger

Differences in Social Vulnerability among Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Williams Syndrome, and Down Syndrome
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3670772/

Figurative language comprehension in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analytic review
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5843023/

Reduced impact of nonverbal cues during integration of verbal and nonverbal emotional information in adults with high-functioning autism
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9868406/

The Family Online Safety Institute – eSafety Research
https://www.esafety.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-07/eSafety%20Research%20Parenting%20Digital%20Age.pdf

Childhood neurodevelopmental disorders and risk of coercive sexual victimization in childhood and adolescence – a population-based prospective twin study
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29570782/

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