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Safety First For Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Anne Stull, MA, BCBA, LPA
WebMD Feature from “Exceptional Parent” Magazine

All parents worry about their children’s health, happiness, and general well-being, but parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other developmental disabilities must often make extraordinary efforts to ensure that their sons and daughters are safe both inside and outside the home.

Children with ASD and other special needs may be more likely to act impulsively—to run away or wander than their typically developing peers. This puts them in greater danger of becoming lost or getting hurt. If their families are in active military service, frequent relocations may make it even more difficult for them to be familiar with their surroundings or to distinguish a stranger from a friend. For these children, basic safety skills may some day become critical life-saving skills.

Like most parents, Jose Ruiz, a Combat Engineer stationed in Camp Lejeune, N.C., and his wife Johan have done everything they can to make sure their home is safe for their three children, Hari (7), Ale (5), and Allyson (3). But they worry about Ale, who was diagnosed with autistic disorder in October of 2008. Ale loves to run away, a playful habit that could lead to a dangerous situation at home, school, or out in the community.

A Very, Very Big Concern

“He started running when he was about 3 years old,” says Jose. “And he can run very fast! When we take him out to the store, he could be standing right next to us and then all of a sudden ‘poof!’ – he’s gone.”

That was exactly what happened during a trip to the grocery store last year. One minute Ale was at his parents’ side, the next he was running down the aisle, heading for the door. Fortunately, the aisle was full of shoppers and he was not able to get past them.

“At school it’s the same problem,” Jose continues, describing how he once watched Ale jump right out of a swing and head for the gate of the school yard the moment his teacher started to announce that recess was over.

“We have learned that children with autism are very unpredictable,” he says. “For us, that represents a very, very big concern because if we’re not paying attention, he can literally disappear in a snap.”

Jose and Johan shared this concern with Ale’s behavior analysts – Marianne Idol, M.A., and Whitney Hendricks, M.A., – and they began addressing the problem immediately. Both women are board certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) with May Institute’s Southeast Regional Autism Center in Jacksonville, N.C., who work with families at Camp Lejeune and in surrounding areas. They have been working with Ale since October 2009, soon after the Center opened.

“It wasn’t until May Institute came to Jacksonville last year that we had access to applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy for Ale,” Jose explains. “We were on waiting list after waiting list…we were waiting for a good year before Ale started receiving ABA therapy.”

ABA is a methodology that applies basic behavioral practices to increase skills and appropriate behaviors and decrease inappropriate behaviors. It is the only treatment reimbursed by TRICARE’s Extended Care Health Option (ECHO) and Enhanced Access to Autism Services Demonstration (“tutor”) programs for military families with children with ASD.

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