Your home is your sanctuary, the place you can relax and be yourself. For your child with autism, that’s doubly true. Children with autism thrive on structure and predictability, and home is the place that meets those needs best. However, it does take some effort to create a home that’s both safe and comfortable for your child on the spectrum. While each autistic child has his or her own unique needs, there are a few things parents should consider when assessing their home environment.
Nearly half of all children with autism are prone to wandering. This behavior is particularly risky for kids on the spectrum, because, as AWAARE notes, they often struggle to understand basic safety rules. If a child wanders away from the home and into a pond or busy street, it could quickly end in tragedy. Even if your child isn’t harmed, she may not be able to tell a neighbor or first responder her address or phone number in order to get back home.
Instituting a few safety measures can save parents magnitudes of stress when it comes to a wandering child. First things first, install a security system that sounds an audible alert any time an external door or window is opened. That way, you know the moment your child has left the house, even if you’re busy in another room. If a security system with monthly monitoring is out of your family’s budget, consider installing door/window sensors on each entry point. Second, understand that no system is foolproof and equip your child with a wearable GPS device or other ID so they can identify themselves and find their way home.
While roaming is dangerous, there are potential safety hazards inside your home too. It can be challenging to teach kids on the spectrum the same safety rules that other kids pick up easily, like not touching a hot stove or getting into the medicine cabinet. Parents should keep all household cleaners, fuels, fertilizers, and other chemicals safely out of reach, along with sharp tools and knives. Consider installing locks on cabinets that hold potentially harmful substances and objects to keep curious children away.
While it’s important to create safety measures to prevent harmful behavior, parents should also recognize that when their child with autism acts out, it’s usually because she’s feeling stressed or overwhelmed by something in the environment. According to the STAR Institute, more than 75 percent of children on the autism spectrum also have symptoms of sensory processing disorder. For that reason, it’s paramount to make your home environment a safe and positive space. That doesn’t necessarily mean restructuring your entire house to prevent overstimulation, although it is wise to keep an organized and tidy home when your child has sensory issues. Rather, it’s about giving your child the resources she needs to feel safe, secure, and happy.
One smart option is to create a dedicated space your child can retreat to when she needs a sensory break. For example, you can set up a quiet space with simple furnishings and decorations, clear organization, muted colors, and dimmable lighting, and stock it with your child’s favorite sensory items. Or, rather than a physical space (or in addition to one!), what about getting your child a service animal that can serve as her safe zone? Service dogs trained specifically for autism are effective in decreasing anxiety and interrupting self-harm behaviors. And since service dogs can accompany your child into public places like stores and schools, she has security no matter where she is.
Finally, make sure the behavior of you and your family members is a source of comfort, not stress, to your child. Keep consistent family routines for meals, sleeping, and other daily tasks, and try to keep the mood at home warm and positive as much as possible.
When you take measures to make your house a safe place for your child on the spectrum, you’re creating a better home for everyone in the family. While these guidelines won’t apply to every child with autism, let them serve as food for thought as you assess your home’s safety and sensory-friendliness.
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