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Safety is a primary concern for all individuals, especially those with ASD who may sometimes face challenges avoiding dangerous situations. The information below outlines common safety concerns for individuals with ASD, tips for keeping individuals out of harm’s way, and strategies to proactively prepare for dealing with a crisis situation should it arise.

How to Inform Police and/or First Responders that an Individual Has Autism Spectrum Disorder?

There is a strong chance that individuals with ASD may encounter police in their lives. Statistics shows that:

  • Individuals with ASD are 7 times more likely to intersect with the criminal justice system, either as victims or offenders (Berryessa, 2014).
  • 19.5% of youth with ASD have been stopped and questioned by police by the time they reached their early 20s. Of them, nearly 5% were subsequently arrested (Rava, Shattuck, Rast, & Roux, 2017).
  • Yet, the prevalence of actual unlawful behavior of individuals with ASD is relatively low (Woodbury-Smith & Dein, 2014).
  • Socio-emotional challenges present in ASD do not allow individuals to have an intent to purposefully harm another person (Berryessa, 2014; Freckelton, 2013; Woodbury-Smith & Dein, 2014).
  • Presence of co-morbid psychiatric disorders can be a strong underlying reason for offensive behaviors.
  • 20% of children with autism have been physically or sexually abused. However, justice personnel is not sufficiently ready to interact and advocate for these victims (Mandell et al., 2005)

Individuals with ASD have higher risks of victimization due to the nature of autism and the social environment, namely:

  • reduced privacy
  • lack of experience with decision-making
  • lack of education about sexuality
  • reduced expectations
  • rewards for rule-following
  • limited socialization
  • negative attitude of others towards disability (Autism Speaks, n.d.)

Call 911 in case of emergency!

Visit CRISIS page for more information on the hotlines to report abuse.

Steps that you can take:

  • Build awareness in the community and among police and first responders that an individual has ASD and therefore may not respond in an expected way.

HANDS in Autism® developed a number of resources to help inform the police and first responders (see examples below). Go to www.HANDSinAutism.IUPUI.edu for more information.

Card to share with community members or during outbursts in public places:

ASDcard_indivdiual

Wallet card to present to police:

ASDcard_IHaveASD_NoThanks

ASDcard_IHaveASD_NoThanks2

  • If possible, contact your community’s 911 office to let them know that there is an individual with ASD living in this community.
  • Include the following magnet in your home to help first responders:

alert-magnet_111617.png

  • Police is often being called at school for behavioral issues of older individuals with ASD. Be sure to address the issue in the child’s IEP as a protection. Also, help educate school resource officers on what to do (see example tag from HANDS in Autism® below. Like other tags/cards shared above, the back side contains strategies to help address the situation)

SecurityCard_Prof_NoThanks

  • Teach individuals about inappropriate touching and how to avoid it in public.

What to Do, when an Individual with ASD Tends to Wander/Elope or Lack Sense of Danger?

It is common for individuals with ASD to wander (or elope) away from home or parent/caregiver supervision, putting them at risk of dangerous or traumatic situations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately one half of all children and youth with ASD have been reported to wander from home, school, or other environments. Challenges with communication, social interaction, attention, and learning can complicate a wandering situation, as individuals with ASD may not be able to find their way home (or even desire to return home) or recognize that they may be in an unsafe situation.

It is important that families watch an individual’s behavior to avoid wandering and have an emergency plan in place in the event that the individual does wander. Simple strategies such as

  • locking doors and windows may prevent wandering, especially in younger children
  • wearing an identification bracelet or temporary tattoo listing their emergency contact information in case individuals with ASD are found to be wandering by law enforcement officers
  • alerting neighbors, family members, and local first responders that an individual has a tendency to wander is also a helpful step in reducing the safety risks associated with wandering.

Check out a list of safety items created by Autism Speaks

Another safety concern for individuals with ASD centers on their sometimes increased tolerance for pain and limited (or lack of) sense of danger. In the event that an individual with ASD is in a crisis situation and/or has an injury, he or she may not recognize that they are hurt or be able to effectively communicate pain to a first responder. Strategies such as visual supports can assist with the social-communication challenges of individuals with ASD in crisis situations.

Indiana University School of Medicine Safety Store contains a number of products and materials related to youth safety, including ASD-specific kits and tools that may be of use to families of individuals with ASD.

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What Steps Should I Take if a Dependent Family Member with ASD Leaves the Home without Supervision?

When a dependent family member with ASD leaves the home without supervision, it is essential to act quickly. If your child leaves home without supervision, call 911 immediately.  Make sure to inform the 911 operator the child’s name, your relationship to the child, contact phone numbers, and your location.  If you are able to recall when the child was first noticed missing, and the clothing that he or she was wearing, share that information too.  Request an Amber Alert be issued or an endangered missing advisory.  Contact the person you have designated as your emergency Key Person (ask them to contact friends to help search and make arrangements for the care of any of your other children while you search).  Write down any instructions the 911 operator tells you. Do not hang up until they say it is OK to do so.  If your child is attracted to water, IMMEDIATELY ask them to check nearby water sources such as lakes, ponds, pools, etc. When law enforcement officials arrive, give them all the information on your Alert for Missing Child with Autism form, located on the Big Red Safety Toolkit  If your child is attracted to water, IMMEDIATELY ask them to check nearby water sources such as lakes, ponds, pools, etc.

You can take proactive measures that make it more difficult for your child to elope from the home unsupervised:

  • Keep your home secure, and all doors and windows locked
  • Consider installing an alarm so you’re aware of doors or windows being open or shut
  • Equip your home with visuals that your child can utilize as cues to stay inside, examples may include a STOP sign on a door or window.
  • If you live near water, consider installing a fence.
  • Notify neighbors if your child is a chronic eloper so they are aware and can take action if they spot your child in the neighborhood unsupervised.

When eloping from the home has occurred in the past, or is a frequent occurrence, you may want to consider purchasing a tracking device.  These range in type of device and price, and can be extremely helpful to families and first responders should your child leave the home unsupervised.  There are many grants and programs that sponsor a free or cost-reduction for a tracking device.  Contact your local fire or police department to inquire about their participation in these programs.

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Additional Resources

National and Nationwide Resources:

State Resources:

References

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