7 Safety Strategies for Kids With Special Needs

By Emily Iland

Special Needs Be Safe Cuffs

A student and his officer partner examine handcuffs at “Mission: Possible 2014,” last fall. The event was designed to bridge gaps between law enforcement and the autism community. PHOTOS COURTESY EMILY ILAND

As parents, it is our job to worry about our kids. And we worry about our children with special needs at every stage of their (and our) lives. As it turns out, worry is a waste of mental energy – energy we cannot afford to waste! The best thing to do with worry is convert it to action, doing something positive to mitigate the unsettling thoughts that keep us awake at night.

The need to do something is particularly crucial when it comes to safety. The list of worries is long. Will my child wander off? How can I prepare for an emergency? Does my teen or adult child know how to interact with the police if she or he should need help, or be stopped by them?

Now is the time to stop worrying and spring into action! Here are seven safety secrets to help you keep your special-needs child, teen or adult safe. (To keep it simple we’ll use the word child to refer to someone of any age.) Let these resources and tips inspire you to take steps toward a safer future for your child.

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

While we must always protect our children, preventing something dangerous from happening is not the same as teaching safe behavior. What kind of skills does your special-needs child need intensive teaching to learn?

  • To cross the street safely?
  • To learn to swim?
  • To respond to “stop,” “go” and “no”?
  • To recognize personal space and boundaries?
  • To learn any other skills that promote safety and minimize danger?

One option is to add safety goals to your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) at school. Safety needs can be addressed in the IEP and are also ideal for transition plans, so speak up about your concerns at your child’s next IEP meeting.

If your child is a client of the Regional Center, you can add safety goals to the IPP (Individual Program Plan). Regional Center staff understands the need to prioritize safety for all clients. Once you have a safety goal in your child’s IPP, attention and resources can be focused on teaching safety skills at home and in the community.

You don’t have to wait for an annual meeting to bring up your child’s needs and add safety goals. You can bring up the subject at any time. What pressing need does your child have? Tell someone who can help.

2. Address wandering. Talk to your neighbors and let them know about your child’s special needs and the danger of potential wandering. Ask them to help you keep watch, and to contact you right way if they see your child unsupervised. Download a free digital copy of the Big Red Safety Box, wandering prevention information for caregivers, from the AWAARE Collaboration at www.awaare.nationalautismassociation.org. The kit includes information and resources, including new options for door alarms and locks.

Special Needs Be Safe Fingerprints

A student plays a game designed to teach the importance of following directions with a sheriff’s deputy.

3. Print out a Google Map of your neighborhood. Identify water (pools, ponds or streams) that might attract your child, favorite places nearby and familiar routes your child takes when she leaves the house with you. Keep this information handy. These are usually the first questions officers ask when a child goes missing. It is better to be prepared with a list than to try and think of the answers in a crisis.

4. Fill out a SNIP. This is a place to record and organize essential information about your loved one, in case of emergency. Having information at the ready can help police and first responders respond quickly and effectively in any situation.

SNIP stands for Special Needs Information Page. The SNIP is one example of a free tool you can use to share information about your child and his or her needs. The SNIP form includes a place to attach a photo and record your child’s description, ways to help calm him, information about diagnoses and medications and emergency contact information. You can type right onto the SNIP form that is available for free at www.BeSafeTheMovie.com. Update it regularly and print out as many copies as you need. Ask to attach a copy to your child’s emergency card at school. Keep a copy in your car and be sure that all of your child’s caregivers also have a copy.

5. Consider enrolling in the SNAP. The SNAP is the Los Angeles County Specific Needs Disaster Voluntary Registry. The SNAP registry is a project of the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management with other L.A. County disaster response agencies. You can voluntarily add information about your child to the free SNAP registry. Agencies can use the information in the registry to serve those with specific needs in Los Angeles County in a disaster. Learn more at https://snap.lacounty.gov.

6. Make sure your child has or wears some kind of identification. This is especially crucial for those who cannot identify themselves verbally. Your child might not have tolerated old-school medical alert jewelry in the past, but there are many new alternative materials and styles. Options include tags, patches and other offerings from organizations such as IF I NEED HELP (www.IfiNeedHelp.org). There are many choices online, or as nearby as your neighborhood pharmacy.

Some children might benefit from high-tech tracking devices. Options include Lok8u (www.lok8u.com) and the Amber Alert GPS locater (www.amberalertgps.com). Others may need to carry and learn to safely show a “self-disclosure card,” a tool that informs others about their needs. A model card is available at www.BeSafeTheMovie.com.

7. Teach your teen or adult with special needs how to interact safely with the police. Parents of children with special needs should be concerned about this issue, because statistics show that individuals with disabilities are more likely than their typical peers to have an encounter with law enforcement. Teens and adults with autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, learning disabilities and related conditions sometimes lack the communication skills or social understanding needed to interact safely with police.

Special Needs Be Safe Game

A student attending “Mission: Possible 2014” experiences fingerprinting as his partner, a Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputy, looks on.

Efforts are underway to train the police about special-needs populations so that things go more smoothly (and safely). At “Mission: Possible 2014,” held last fall at The California Endowment offices downtown, the Autism Society of Los Angeles trained 100 Los Angeles police officers and sheriff’s deputies, plus 100 students on the autism spectrum and their families. Officers and students paired up to participate in activities designed to help build understanding – teaching officers what it is like to experience communication and sensory issues, and teaching students skills that included following directions, asking for help and what to do in an emergency.

It is necessary to teach safe behaviors for interacting with police directly and explicitly to teens and adults with special needs. This is especially true for young adults who want be more independent in the community, or plan to drive.

One thing we know about our kids is that they don’t easily learn things based on a simple conversation. They usually need to see things and practice repeatedly. For this reason, video modeling can be an excellent and effective tool for teaching safety skills.

BE SAFE The Movie is a new video modeling tool created by and for young adults with special needs at Joey Travolta’s Inclusion Films Workshop. BE SAFE shows encounters between real police officers and individuals with special needs. The movie and the BE SAFE Companion Curriculum can help you teach your children skills such as “Stay where you are when you meet the police,” and “When the police tell you to do something, just do it.” More information is available at www.BeSafeTheMovie.com.

Prioritizing safety and working together to address all kinds of safety issues will help protect your child, now and in the future. It might even help you sleep better at night. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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. Contact her at Emily@BeSafeTheMovie.com or 661-347-8557.

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