Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Safety for Kids with Special Needs
How to play it safe and why

by Jennifer Pace

June 01, 2011

With June being National Safety Month for children, the first words that come to mind are "Hold on tight!" That call must have rang across California and Indiana playgrounds literally a million times before my kids each reached age 5.

Why? Because teaching them to hold on tightly with both hands to whatever they were climbing on, kept them safe from falling.

Coincidentally, Cara Fast, manager of Riley Hospital's Safe Children's Program, relayed that "falls" are the leading cause of accidental injury and death for all children between ages 1 through 14. Falls can range from falling out of a bed, a grocery cart, off a bike or out of a window. She further pointed out that Riley Hospital sees safety as a blanket measure for all children, not just kids with special needs.

In any situation, Fast stated that parents need to set a good example by practicing safety in all aspects of life.

She cited five leading causes of child-related hospitalizations: the first being falling, followed by automobile, bike, pedestrian and choking-related accidents.

In terms of special needs children, Fast warranted that, “One of the most important things parents can do is contact their local emergency services such as the fire department, to give advance notice that there is a child with special needs residing in the home in case a crisis arises. Officials will then be prepared to bring special equipment if needed.”

She also explained that if a child is depending on electrically powered devices such as ventilators, that it's best to alert the electric company incase of power outages or interrupted service due to unpaid bills.

While California's warm climate may leave parents on year-round playground alert for outdoor activity, Indiana parents are no exception to the rule of practicing good safety as kids rev-up for warm weather activities right here.

Regardless the weather or setting, accidents can happen anytime and anywhere. The best approach to safety is to teach children common sense rules for use at schools, playgrounds, pools, zoos, museums, festivals, fairs, and of course at home.

Allowing kids the freedom to explore the world while instilling good safe play and conduct, is key in reducing the chances of ending a family outing at the hospital.

Safety Tips Help Develop a Child's Abstract Thinking Skills for Planning Ahead

We were raised with warnings like, "Don't play with matches," or "Look both ways before crossing the street."

Both are sage pieces of advice for preventing serious accidents. We didn't have to burn down the house or get hit by a car to learn these lessons, rather we simply used our imaginations while listening to stories and constant reminders about what could happen.

In essence, we were taught to think abstractly about safety. While adults are mentally developed and experienced enough to think in abstract terms to reason and foresee situations and then plan accordingly, children are learning to do so. Kindergartners do show abstract thinking while playing make-believe games, but they are not yet capable of understanding prioritizing as adults are. For instance, an adult will first stop to make sure there are no cars coming before crossing the street to retrieve a ball, however a child puts the desire for the ball first, without stopping to consider the dangers of a car.

Young children tend to be more concrete thinkers, focusing on what is happening "here and now" in order to meet immediate wants and needs. Stories and reminders that teach safety are important tools that help children stop and think abstractly to consider the consequences before doing something that could hurt them. Parents who take time to explain the how's and why's of "playing it safe" become the sound voice of reason whose words of wisdom and actions guide children to learn to think ahead as they grow.

Experts Safeguarding Special: "Leap Before You Look"

In terms of children with autism who tend to leap before they look, Dr. Brad Ralston, executive director at Brain Balance in Indianapolis, offered that with autism there can be a heightened sense and range of impulsive behaviors like suddenly darting off. This creates a "flight risk" situation. He encourages parents to "think like they would, with a curious and impetuous mind," in order to stay a step ahead of what might trigger the autistic child to suddenly fly out the door, run into the street, or jump from high places.

Commercial entry bell alerts used in stores to make staff aware of customers entering or exiting, are now being used by parents of children with autism to keep tabs on them and prevent sudden wandering. In context, leading professionals such as Laura Grant, Board Certified Behavior Analyst with the Applied Behavior Center for Autism (ABA) and Dr. Craig Erickson, chief of the IU Health Riley Hospital for Children Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center, both agreed.

They separately mentioned installing entry door alerts and window alarms. While all agreed that "flight risk" behavior is not overly prevalent with autism, they all felt alerts are very good preventive measures.

Both Ralston and Erickson stated that early detection and treatment of autism is important. Ralston explained that if left untreated, teens with autism can get into difficult situations as a result of not having learned to cope with and control impulsive "high risk" tendencies.

Teaching Children with Special Needs to Understand Basic Safety Commands

Grant successfully works with children ages 3 through 17 to expand communication skills to eliminate displays of negative behavior like aggression, tantrums and self-inflicted hurt. She explained that language is the core of what all adults use in order to socialize and be together.

Language defects are common in children with autism who are having difficulty expressing themselves and can result in inappropriate aggressive behavior. In terms of safety, Grant offered that one of the best measures parents can take is making sure that young children understand "how" to follow simple directions like stop, come here, hold my hand or sit down.

Directives like "Stop" and "Hold my hand" can prevent a child from running into the street. "Come here" can turn a child away from a harmful situation and "Sit" can keep kids safe while traveling in a car or on a bus or airplane.

She explained that young children who have heard basic words simply do not understand the actual meaning of what they should do in response. For example, a child may not know the act of stopping to sit, upon hearing the adult speak the word. In her work, she teaches kids to associate the expected action with the word which increases their ability to interact and stay safe in any given setting.