Safety is a never-ending issue. People with disabilities, especially those with limited communication skills, are at a high risk for abuse, neglect, bullying, and sexual assault. Being wary of anyone who is alone with your child at home, in the community, and especially at school is paramount. Sadly, we have seen many reports of physical and sexual assault of ASD kids delivered at the hands of “caregivers” and even peers. Video cameras in your home are a great idea, as are GPS tracking devices, but they will never replace a watchful parent. Sitting in, or within eyesight of therapy sessions, rather than in the waiting room is a huge thing. Not only can you safeguard your child just with your presence, but you can learn what your therapist is actually doing and how to follow through on the program at home just by watching. Being choosy and careful will never cause you regrets.
Eloping and escaping
How do you know when a child outgrows eloping? The hard way. Today there are many tracking devices available with different technologies, some of which are designed for teens and adults. Check out NAA's Autism Safety website .
Keeping kids safe at school
The kids who raise the most concern are the ones with limited communication skills, who can’t reliably tell parents what is going on. Schools are supposed to do background checks on every prospective employee, but unfortunately, background checks aren’t perfect, and mistakes can have dire ramifications. Parents should do an online search to check on the background of teachers, and especially aides, who work with their children. You may be surprised at the information you can find out about people online. Sometimes you come up empty-handed, but other times you will hit the jackpot. One family discovered very disturbing facts (very odd sexual preferences) about the aide assigned to their child from her MySpace page. Read here to find out how to get a free background check on anyone.
An invaluable tool to keeping your child safe at school is to become friends with parents of classmates, because you want as many people as possible watching your child. If you have an older child attending the same school, have the sibling stop by the younger child’s classroom a few times a week and report back to you if they notice anything odd.
Get to know the aides, the janitors, and as many people as possible in the school. One parent reported that the janitor pulled her to the side to tell her about the odd behavior he was noticing in the classroom. The staff will be more comfortable talking to you if they know you.
Volunteering in the classroom is a great way to get to know what is going on behind closed doors and getting to know people, especially for elementary-aged children. School districts’ attitudes toward volunteers vary. Parents who are told that they cannot volunteer in the classroom should ask for the written district policy on volunteering. Every school district has one. If the school your child is attending is a Title I school (receives Title I federal funds), they must have a parent involvement policy that outlines how parents can get involved in order to continue to receive these federal funds.
While parents don’t have the right to demand that individual school employees work, or don’t work, with their children, they do have right to have a particular service provider or employee (such as a speech and language pathologist) replaced if they are not doing their job effectively, or if they don’t have the particular skills that the child needs in order to meet IEP goals. Parents should not be embarrassed to bring up an issue if they notice one.
Trust your intuition. Many parents have reported that they felt something was wrong, but they kept ignoring that voice in the back of their heads. If you learn about any type of physical or sexual abuse at school, demand that the proper authorities are notified immediately and that an incident report is filed ASAP. If you suspect physical abuse, take pictures of the child and document everything that you notice.
Abuse generally happens when staff are allowed to be alone with kids and can relate to how restraint and seclusion are addressed in the IEP.
Restraint and seclusion policies
Most parents don’t even ask about restraint and seclusion because they have no idea that it is happening at their school or with their child. Unfortunately, federal law doesn’t help much, so policies on this issue come down to state laws, which vary dramatically. Parents need to investigate their state laws about restraint and seclusion. You can ask for a copy from the state, school, or district, in writing of course.
Next, ask about the local district’s policies on restraint and seclusion. But this brings up the larger issue that restraint and seclusion are both unnecessary and harmful. Restraint should be used only by a properly trained professional, and then only when all other resources to prevent imminent physical harm have been exhausted. Regular use of restraint and seclusion means the child doesn’t have an appropriate FBA (Functional Behavioral Assessment) or BIP (Behavior Intervention Plan). Parents should call an IEP meeting to address these issues immediately if their child is regularly subjected to restraint and seclusion.
Risk of Sexual Abuse
The social-emotional and communication challenges that accompany autism can make ASD kids vulnerable to sexual abuse. In the absence of age-appropriate communication skills, behavioral signs that something is wrong may be attributed to autism, rather than to possible abuse or trauma. Sex offenders are overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) male, and the majority of children who suffer sexual abuse are victimized by someone they know. When my son was little, a dear friend’s child was sexually assaulted by his male caregiver in their own home. This nonverbal child could not report what happened and the abuse continued until he had a psychotic break; had to be institutionalized; and a physical exam showed the evidence of assault. Parents should be on the lookout for signs of abuse, and aware that it can come from within the child’s social circle. It’s also important to note that lack of toileting abilities also puts children at risk. If your child needs assistance with toileting, make sure the helper is well trained and gender-appropriate. Learn more about the signs of sexual abuse from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis For Professionals Investigating the Sexual Exploitation of Children
How to be aware and proactive
Volunteering, even if it means taking sick or vacation time off work, is the best way to see what is really happening at school.
Parents who don’t volunteer should still check their district’s volunteer policies. Some are very restrictive, requiring fingerprinting, background checks, or training in order to volunteer. In other districts, practically anyone can volunteer, and assignments can be left to the prerogative of teachers and staff, which can potentially expose children to abusers. Make sure you know who is allowed access to your child at school, and how rigorously any volunteers are vetted.
State laws vary regarding seclusion vary greatly; check your state’s statutes to whether and when your child may be placed in seclusion. Many states require ‘supervised’ seclusion, but supervision requirements may not be explicitly stated. Additionally, supervision may be left to aides or paraprofessionals with little or no training. Dangerous things can happen behind closed doors.
Parents should not be complacent simply because their child is labeled ‘high-functioning.’ Inappropriate discipline and use of restraint and seclusion happens to children of all ages and all levels of ability.
Also, be aware of your state’s laws regarding notification of use of restraint or seclusion. Again, this varies by state. Some require same-day notification to parents if restraint or seclusion is used.
The lesson here is that a good IEP that investigates and specifies all aspects of restraint, seclusion and ratio of staff-to-child can really help to minimize abuse at school.
In the age of Facebook, e-mail, texting, and everything at your fingertips on the web, all kids want to be online. For children with autism, a lot can be found on the web to keep them engaged, educated, and entertained. It’s not really feasible to keep our kids offline; instead, the focus should be on safety.
Bullying via social media or text message – known as cyberbullying -- is common today unfortunately, so if you allow your child a Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or other such online profile, you really need to monitor it daily and be careful about what information (like last name or location) is displayed and to whom. NSTeens, a program of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has a section on cyberbullying, as well as other content covering online safety. Stopbullying.gov also addresses cyberbullying.
Stranger Danger, Bullying and 'Bad' Friends
How do you teach children on the autism spectrum to be appropriately wary when they often have to work with new people, like therapists or doctors? Do you want to instill distrust in an otherwise loving, open kid and if so, how do you teach a good balance between polite and friendly behavior and self-protection? Not easy questions or answers.
My son has never had appropriate safety awareness, but with personal safety issues, it’s not exactly appropriate to rely on natural consequences to help teach a lesson. With good behavioral support, video modeling, and social stories, you can make a lot of progress.
www.youtube.com has become a huge repository for video modeling samples for social skills, life skills, hygiene tasks, and safety. There are also many anti-bullying videos.