Earlier today I was walking home with my autistic son. The closer we got to home the less he wanted to hold my hand so, rather reluctantly, I let him go. We were on a pathway with no other way other than straight ahead and I could see our home right ahead.
Without so much of even a glance my son stepped off the path and ran across a road at the end of the street. Thankfully I live in a quiet street but my son’s lack of danger awareness scares me.
My son is almost ten but he still can not safely cross a road himself. He has no concept of waiting at lights for the green man, no idea of road safety, no idea that sharp knives should never be touched and definitely no idea about the dangers of water. He is very typical of most children with autism. My son has no awareness of danger which puts both him and others at risk continually.
But why do so many children with autism have no awareness of danger and is there anything we can do to help them?
There are very valid and understandable reasons why autistic children (and adults because for some this will be a lifelong difficulty) struggle with danger awareness. I will break them down and explain how we can help a child or adult learn danger awareness despite having autism.
1. Rigid thinking and lack of imagination.
This isn’t lack of creative imagination but more social imagination and understanding people and events that have yet to happen or be experienced directly. How this presents in daily life for a person with autism would be a very literally and black and white thinking along the lines of ‘since I have never been hit by a moving car it is therefore impossible that this could ever happen.’ They can not ‘imagine’ that anything other than what they have experienced could happen. Even if they have came across a danger before such as water that was out of their depth a person with autism may struggle to generalise that experience. So if they were out of depth in a pool they visited on holiday once they may only link the danger of deep water to that particular place and time and not generalise that danger to all pools or beaches.
How to help: Never assume someone with autism is incapable of understanding. Use their way of thinking to help them. For example point out speed limit signs when out and talk about the fact that the faster a vehicle moves the more dangerous it can be. Linking speed to danger is a very important message that can be generalised as it is very rule based.
With water point out warning signs that are often universal too and if there are any lifebelts around talk about why those are there and how this points out danger. Never assume anything so when buying fireworks take time to show the packaging to the child or adult and let them see or read the warnings for themselves if they are able to. Repetition is often the key for anyone but especially so for someone on the spectrum who may require extra processing time.
2. Uneven developmental profiling.
What this means is that while they may, on the surface, seem to function similar to children or adults their own age there may be areas like social skills or awareness of the world around them that they struggle with. It is very true that autistic’s see and experience the world in a very different (and wonderful) way but this may mean they focus on or obsess on things to the detriment of other skills. They may have a unique and amazing ability to tell you the make and model of every car that you pass, for example, but have no idea where the local police station is should they need help. It’s not that they are not observant just that they have focussed on something else instead, like how many bricks form a pattern on the next door neighbours wall.
How to help: Give them a reason to focus on what is necessary. So if you feel it would be worthwhile them knowing where the police station is explain why and have a visual chart with a photograph so they have to place the photograph either on the map or somewhere else to help them visualise what you mean by the police station and why it’s important to know where it is. Having visuals for traffic lights or other safe places to cross and looking for these helps too. In your home allowing them to stick warning stickers on things like sockets can help remind them of potential danger too. Visuals simplify, are easier remembered and are portable. I can’t recommend them enough!
3. High sensory needs (that can either overwhelm them or lure them to the point that everything else gets forgotten.)
For my son the lure of water is so high if he sees it he wants to touch it so badly that he can not see anything else going on around him. For others their anxiety levels can rise so suddenly when they have so many sensory stimuli bombarding them at once that they just have to run or drop to the floor and they blank out everything else in order to cope. This may happen suddenly in the middle of a road if, for example, they heard a dog bark and they are scared of dogs.
How to help: If you know somewhere will be noisy then noise cancelling headphones may help. Sunglasses may help with bright lights and having fidget toys may help redirect the need for sensory feedback too. My son has a massive lure (and fixation) on elevators so I allow him that ‘fix’ before I expect him to do what I want. I use ‘first lift, then shopping’ as otherwise he would simply run to the elevator while I shopped. It’s about working with and adapting to sensory needs rather than expecting them to suddenly disappear. Be creative and, if you can, even ask your child about what things stress them or what they enjoy and see if together you can find a way of supporting them.
Of course autism is a spectrum and for every autistic person who has no awareness of danger you may have another, like my daughter, who is hyper aware and as a result makes herself ill with worry at perceived dangers that are extremely unlikely. A shark eating her up at the local public swimming pool is hardly going to happen but she will fear it anyway.
Living with someone who has limited or no danger awareness (or even hyper aware and therefore highly anxious) is difficult. It takes patience, time and a willingness to adapt and understand to help teach danger awareness, but it can be done. I know for some children (and adults) there will be extra barriers such as learning difficulties and communication difficulties and some children will never reach a level of awareness or understanding to have any grasp of danger awareness at all.
I continue to do what I can to help my son learn road safety. While he is learning though I make sure to keep him as safe as possible. The more I teach him about what I feel he needs to know to be safe the more he teaches me about how smart and wonderful his way of looking at the world is too.
It’s all about balance. Independence verses safety, teaching but being willing to learn too.
Lack of danger awareness can be terrifying but with patience and understanding it can be taught. Never underestimate an autistic person’s ability to learn.