Summer Safety Tips for Parents of Children with Autism and Other Special Needs


Just when parents think they have it all covered for keeping their children out of harm’s way, the summer season arrives. In recognition of National Safety Month, we offer the following safety tips for parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other special needs that are particularly important when the focus is on outdoor activities. These basic safety skills may someday become critical life-saving skills.

Download “How Can I Help My Child with Autism Be Safe at Home and in the Community?,” May Institute’s most recent addition to its “Autism – A Closer Look” series.

Download feature story from Exceptional Parent magazine, "Safety First - For Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders."

Being safe around the water:

Many children with autism and other developmental disabilities are powerfully drawn to the water, but do not understand the dangers. 

  • Find the right (typical or adaptive) life jacket that best meets your child’s needs to wear anytime the child is near water – pool, lake, river, fountain, pond, hot tub, or any open water.
  • Always be within arm’s reach of the child when he or she is in or around any open water. 
  • Be sure to drain bathtubs and other small containers of water when you are finished using them. Put safety locks on toilet seats; motion detector alarms/safety locks on all hot tubs, landscape ponds, or other water sources around your home. 
  • Take adaptive swim classes with your child at an early age. Many YMCAs and Parks and Recreation Departments offer these classes. If your child has difficulty learning conventional swimming strokes, teach him or her drown-proofing, a water survival technique that will help a child stay afloat until help arrives.

Ways to prevent wandering (courtesy of LoJack SafetyNet):

Children with ASD and other special needs are more likely to act impulsively – to run away or wander – than their typically developing peers.

  • Use deadbolt locks, keep doors and windows locked and install an alarm/alert chimes on doors. Motion detectors and window bars may also be appropriate. Some individuals on the autism spectrum have exceptionally good visual-motor skills and are able to quickly debilitate locks.
  • In family settings where there are siblings and babysitters, be vigilant about having regular conversations about the importance of making sure that all access points to the outside are locked when leaving the house.
  • If your child has an obsession with a certain sound or object that draws him or her to investigate and wander, you may want to eliminate these distractions.
  • For children who respond well to visual cues, consider placing STOP or DO NOT ENTER signs on all doors opening to the outside. These can be powerful reminders not to wander for your child.
  • Get an ID bracelet or necklace and tag personal items. List your emergency contact information on personal IDs and on tags for shoes, clothes, beach bags, and backpacks. If your child has sensory issues and will not wear an accessory, use temporary tattoos with your contact information.
  • Consider a personal tracking device. A Radio Frequency (RF) device is ideal for people at risk of wandering, because it has strong signals than can penetrate any physical obstruction. With an RF device, your child can be found in places that a GPS or cellular product cannot reach, such as a wooded area or concrete building.

Distinguishing between stranger and friend:

In emergency situations – a child has wandered from home and is lost or in physical peril – it is difficult for children with special needs to distinguish a stranger from a friend, putting them in greater danger of becoming lost or hurt. It is critical for both first responders in the community and children with special needs to feel secure around each other.

  • Participate in local community safety fairs where there are opportunities to meet actual police, fire fighters, and emergency response professionals that work in your community in an environment that is friendly and fun. This will make it more likely that your children will respond positively to first responders in the future.
  • Fill out a disability indicator form and submit it to your local law enforcement agency. This will help alert law enforcement that a person residing at that address may require special assistance during an emergency. In addition to this form, complete a more detailed handout with information about your child that you can provide to first responders. Keep copies of your handout in printed and electronic formats so you can readily provide it to search and rescue personnel in the event of an incident.
  • Give your neighbors a handout with a picture of your child, physical characteristics and emergency contact information. You may also want to describe your child’s fears and effective ways to approach, communicate with, and calm your child. Ask them to contact you immediately if they see your child outside your home or property.

For more information to share with your local community law enforcement and safety departments, download a copy of our “Autism for First Responders” fact sheet.