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How To Teach Stranger Danger To An ASD Child

Published on 06/03/2024
how to teach stranger danger to an asd child

Every child worries when their child wanders off out of sight or when children spend more time out of our supervision in the world at large, but these fears are heightened when you have a child with ASD. Teaching important safety concepts, like “stranger danger,” can be challenging, but these tips can help. And, of course, not all danger comes from strangers. 

Unfortunately, your child (and any child) is also vulnerable to danger from those we’d typically deem safe. So, while “stranger danger” is one thing, your child also needs to know what behaviors are appropriate and which aren’t so they can do what’s necessary to protect themselves.

Through your continued efforts, your child can:

  • Learn what to do if they are separated from you in public or unfamiliar places.
  • Understand the difference between “strangers” and “family/friends/trusted adults.”
  • Identify which types of language, touch, and activities fall into the “danger” category.
  • How can they protect themselves and get help if needed? (Make sure your child knows how to call 9-1-1 in an emergency, ensuring they can recite their address OR have it written somewhere out of sight (like on a patch on the underside of a t-shirt).
  • Understanding that people/information online also counts the same way in-person interactions do.

This can be difficult due to some of the communication challenges experienced by many children with ASD, like the inability to read nonverbal cues or their tendency to take everything they hear literally. Even so, 

7 Tips For Helping ASD Kids Stay Clear Of Stranger Danger

These lessons should be regularly integrated into life (especially when children progress or transition from one classroom or environment to another). For example, this year’s teachers and aides may have been identified as “safe,” but your child may take those lessons so much to heart that they claim “stranger danger!” when a substitute teacher arrives on the scene or when they start a new school year. 

On the flip side, the sad reality is that the majority of sexual abuse cases involve someone whom the child knew or trusted - so this is a balancing act. 

Here are some tried and true tips for teaching stranger danger to your child with ASD.

Use visuals whenever possible

Unless they have vision loss, most children with ASD thrive with the use of visuals when communicating or learning and practicing new concepts. If you don’t already have the right types of visuals or examples, we recommend looking online, where you’ll find very affordable task cards for teaching stranger danger and other safety lessons. 

Discuss the difference between strangers and trusted adults

Some things are a given in our society, one of which is that a trusted adult would never have a child do something off-limits or that pushes the boundaries of appropriate behavior. So you can gently and calmly speak to your child about how a trusted adult:

  • Takes “no” for an answer the first time when it comes to body and emotional safety.
  • Never try to remove clothes, touch your body, or do anything that infringes on the boundaries without checking in with your parents/caregivers first.
  • Never ask you to get into the car with them unless that was already arranged with you and the child was informed beforehand.
  • Always know the “secret word” or “secret handshake” you’ve determined to be the “green light” in unpredictable situations.
  • And so on.

Another confusing thing for children with ASD to understand is that trusted adults may also include people we’ve never met before, like police officers, paramedics, or firefighters. They may also be the grandmotherly lady who lives a few doors down or the mother you see taking a walk with her dog every day. Familiarizing your child with their neighborhood can be good, but it should also be paired with a well-found knowledge of dangerous behaviors (see #6).

Explain how the internet can be dangerous, too

Throughout their earlier lives, there’s a good chance that parental controls and other safety features will do their job to keep your child safe. This may change as they get older or begin spending more unsupervised time with friends or on Wi-Fi networks outside of their homes.

For this reason, we recommend reading 10 Ways to Keep Your Child Safe Online as a family. It should be standard reading for anyone with children, whether they have ASD or not.

Have a supervision plan in place

Children with ASD may not be able to be out in public without some level of supervision for longer than their non-ASD counterparts. This may involve strategic plans for:

  • Where they are.
  • Who they’re with.
  • Transportation.
  • Etc.

The less time they spend alone outside of the home, the less risk they have of becoming a target.

Talk to them about not taking rides or going anywhere with someone they don’t know

Again, this is no different than the conversations you’d have with any child. Children need to understand that under no circumstances should they ever get in a car, leave their normal walking/biking route, or go with anyone whom they don’t know or who strays from the plan they made before they leave home.

Again, secret handshakes or code words are the only exceptions. You might also think about getting them a loud whistle or noise maker (which is also handy for children prone to wandering since you can find them when you hear their “call”).

Keep open conversations about inappropriate behavior from others

Find age-appropriate ways to talk about strange or inappropriate behavior from adults, people in power, or even children who are the same age or a few years older than them. This would include:

  • Insisting they enter a car, home, trailer, or go behind a building that places them out of the sightline of others.
  • The removal of clothing.
  • Touching their body parts (especially those covered by underwear or bras).
  • Making the child touch their body.
  • Threatening the child’s safety (or family’s safety) in any way.
  • Making them do anything they don’t want to do or that they know is wrong (stealing, lying, covering for someone else, and so on).

Keep the lines of communication open when you teach stranger danger

Most importantly, you want your child to feel safe coming to you or other trusted caregivers to talk about anything that happens to them or scares them. They should also understand that you’ll never ever be mad or upset with them if something happens to them despite what they know the rules to be. They are never at fault if someone else is dangerous.

You can also work in some role-playing activities whenever you can, having practice conversations that evolve as they age. The more they’ve had a chance to learn about different, real-life examples, scenarios, or potential threats - and what to do about it - the safer they are.

Applied Behavioral Analysis Can Increase Safety For ASD Children

Teaching children with ASD how to keep themselves safe is in the applied behavioral analysis (ABA) wheelhouse. The Autism Response Team builds client safety and empowerment into everything we do. As a parent or caregiver of a child with ASD, we know your hands are more than full - and we’re here to relieve the weight you carry. 

In addition to working with your family to find solutions that keep your days running smoothly and increase your child’s functional success at home, in school, and in their community - we can also work with you to create a personalized approach for teaching stranger danger and other essential safety lessons. Contact us to learn more about what we do and how we can help.

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