The future depends on what we do in the present. - Mahatma Gandhi
Safety: Your kids are never too old that you can let your guard down!
Just because your child is older and taller doesn't mean he or she won't need the same, or even more, protections then they needed when they were younger. 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 our older kids, especially during the teenage years, 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 & 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 Toolkit and companies that sell tracking devices.
Keeping kids safe at school
The kids that raise the most concern are the ones that are non-verbal and can't tell you what is going on. Schools are supposed to do background checks on every employee before hiring them, but unfortunately, sometimes they miss stuff. 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 that was working with 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 the other parents of the children in their classroom, because you want as many people as possible watching your child. If you have an older child attending the same school, have them 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 them to the side to tell them 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. Many school districts around the country are trying to keep parent volunteers out of the classroom. If a parent is told that they cannot volunteer in the classroom, they need to ask for the written district policy on volunteering because 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 particular 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 right or if they don't have the particular skills that the child needs in order to meet their goals. Parents should not be embarrassed to bring up an issue if they notice one.
Trust your intuition. Many families have reported that they felt something was wrong but they kept ignoring that voice in the back of their head. 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 relates 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 it comes down to state laws, which vary dramatically. The parent needs 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.
Then the parent needs to 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. There isn't any research or data validating its use. Furthermore, its use means the child doesn't have an appropriate FBA (Functional Behavioral Analysis) or BIP (Behavioral Intervention Plan).
It's also important to note that lack of toileting abilities puts the child at the greatest risk. It's incredible that some districts think it is okay to have a male aide helping a girl with toileting. Sometimes districts are so apathetic about supporting toileting goals in the IEP, that it puts the child at unnecessary risk for sexual abuse.
When my son was little, I had a dear friend whose 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 and had to be institutionalized and a physical exam was done, showing the evidence of assault. Needless to say, this weighed heavily on my mind when my child went to school so I had it written into his IEP that no male staff was allowed within 5 feet of my child, and that included volunteers. Given that most of the staff working at schools are women, and even less men are in special education than regular education, it wasn't a burden for the school. The school was private but said that if it were public, I could not exclude men as it would violate their civil rights. They were misinformed. No one at a school has a civil right to work with any particular child. Civil rights would only apply if you were excluding people of a certain race or religion from working from your child. But besides an individual child's circumstance, I don't believe it would be possible to exclude male staff from working with special needs kids, so due diligence is paramount.
One of our TACA chapter's mom's top suggestions for nearly every problem at school: the parents/grandparents need to volunteer at school even if it means taking sick or vacation time. That's the only way to really see what is really happening at school.
Of course, some parents aren't going to volunteer for whatever reason, but they should definitely check into the district's policy on volunteering. Some schools are very restrictive. For example, at my school you have to be finger-printed which includes a background check through the FBI plus take a TB test. But at other schools, practically anyone can volunteer and their assignments are often left to the prerogative of teachers and staff which can really expose the child to being with an abuser. However, in California, if a volunteer is ever alone with the child and has not undergone a LiveScan, the district is out of compliance with the Michelle Montoya Act. Regardless of whether other states have similar statutes, this should be considered in the IEP if the child will ever be alone with any teacher, staff or volunteer for any reason.
Regarding seclusion with an aide, it can also put the district out of compliance with state law, which requires kids to be with a credentialed teacher. The most dangerous things happen behind closed doors.
I would also warn parents not to be complacent simply because their kid is supposedly HFA. The boy who hung himself in the seclusion room in 2010 had Asperger's; he could have told his parents what was happening, but he didn't.
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 and everything at your fingertips on the web, all kids want to be on the web. For children with autism, there is so much on the web that can help them stay engaged, educated and entertained that it's not really feasible to just cut our kids off the net, but rather, the focus needs to be on safety.
Family Cyber Alert is just one of the software packages that can help parents keep their kids safe.
Internet Bullying 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. This is a great site about CyberBullying.
There are many kid-safe internet browsers and there is even one developed just for kids with ASD. ZACbrowser is a free browser built for ASD kids.
Stranger Danger, Bullying and 'bad' friends
How do you teach a child to fear people 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 being polite or friendly versus protecting one's self? Not easy questions or answers.
My son has never had the proper amount of safety awareness but how do you teach a kid he can be hit by a car and be hurt without actually letting him run into the road, get hit by a car and get hurt? It's not easy but with good behavioral support and social stories, you can make a lot of progress.
www.youtube.com has become a huge repository for video modeling samples for everything you can imagine from safety, raising your hand in class to taking turns, initiating conversation or activities, feeding one's self, and many hygiene tasks. There are also many anti-bullying videos.