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Safety First For Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Teaching Personal Information

Behavior analysts often include this safety-related skill in a child’s in-home behavioral goals. It is very important that children like Ale, who impulsively run or wander away, learn some basic personal information such as their parents’ names and phone numbers. Then, if they get lost, they can tell someone who their parents are and how to contact them.

With Ale, Marianne and Whitney started by making sure he could tell people his name. “Then it was his first name and last name,” says Jose. “Then my name, then his address, then the phone number, then his birthday and his age,” he continues. “Now they’re about to start adding in the name of the school, his teacher’s name, his city, and his brother’s and sister’s names.”

When teaching a child to memorize his phone number, behavior analysts may use a visual prompt at first, so the child can identify each of the numbers on a piece of paper when asked, “What is your phone number?” Again, depending on the child’s preferences, a reward can be provided immediately after he responds correctly. Once the child is consistently saying his phone number with the visual prompt, the numbers can be “faded out” (i.e., take one number away, then two, three, and so on). The numbers will continue to be removed until the child can give the number without the visual prompt, when asked, “What is your phone number?”

Teaching children with ASD who are non-verbal how to communicate important personal information poses additional challenges. Some may be able to carry a card that has their name, address, hometown, telephone number, and parents’ names on it, but this may not be feasible for all children. This information can also be conveyed through the use of safety temporary tattoos or stickers that a child can wear out in public. This eliminates the need to regularly confirm the child still has the card with him.

Occasionally, children are so excited about memorizing their phone number or address that they will recite it to anyone who will listen. It is important to teach them that we only share personal information in certain situations, and with certain people.

Wandering and “Stranger Danger”

A big concern for parents of children with special needs who are inclined to run away or wander is that they may become lost or encounter an adult who might try to harm rather than help them.

For Ale, strangers do not pose a danger because he is very wary of people he does not know and will scream if a stranger tries to talk to him. And, at this point, Jose and Johan are not worried about Ale running or wandering away when he is inside their house. “That’s not a concern yet,” says Jose, “but there is the possibility that he might start opening doors later on. Both his therapists have impressed upon him that, if he wants to go out, he must ask an adult to open the door.”

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