As a parent of a child with autism, my biggest concern when my son is in the community (whether he’s with me or not) is how people perceive him.
He’s a big guy. And due to his autism, he’ll sometimes self-stimulate or make funny noises that can startle people. If he gets frustrated, he might start kicking, screaming, and getting angry.
Usually, if this happens in the community, I say in a calm voice, “Are you ready to go home? Are you unhappy?” He’ll answer what I’m asking him, and it makes the surrounding areas calmer and cooler for him.
But during his high school years, his behavior became intense. There were a couple times where I had to call the local authorities for assistance. And I noticed that some of the responders didn’t know how to respond to my son.
I was worried that he would get hurt or hurt someone else.
Fortunately, I live in a small community. People know us and know my son.
So, I went to the police station and talked to the sergeant about my son’s needs. I even brought a photo of my son. The sergeant helped me make sure that everyone on his staff knew who my son was and how to respond to him.
I did the same thing with the fire department.
Now, if we need to call 9-1-1 for assistance, the responders know my son. They call him by his name, which calms him down. They give him space. They still might need to use restraints, but no one gets hurt.
It goes beyond emergencies, too. One day, my son was in the park with his therapist. A passerby saw him, thought he was alone, and called 9-1-1. I got a call from the police before they did anything else. I could tell them his therapist was with him.
Keeping up those relationships takes work. There’s turnover. If there’s a new department head, I have to reintroduce my son and myself. So, we stop in regularly to see them. I even invited our police and fire department contacts to my son’s high school graduation party.
It might be harder to make these personal connections in a bigger metropolitan area. But there are still a few ways to help keep your child safe.
Being a mother of a son with disabilities, I would write down a list of the phone numbers for all of the community-based organizations that I would use in case of an emergency. This might be neighborhood churches, my closest police stations, fire station, library, and any other locally owned businesses. I’d also try to take my kid to visit all these places, even when my kid was very young, so they could see him grow up.
That way, if my kid were to get lost, the likelihood of someone seeing him that knows him would be greater. Introducing the child to the community helps you help your child, even if the child is nonverbal. You would be surprised by how well outsiders relate to individuals that are not able to communicate.
The more exposure, the better. All this is especially important during a child’s adolescence stage.
I would also recommend working on a relationship with the police department, even if you can’t get every police officer to know your kid. Here are some tips that I got from the Austin Police Department.
Because I’ve taken so many precautions, I know my son is safe. He’s safe at home. He’s safe in the community.
This is really important, because I don’t want to isolate my child. Having him go out into the community raises awareness and lets him make friends without me. And you’d be amazed how well my son is received. People I don’t recognize will approach him and say, “Hi, do you remember me?”
It makes me really happy.
Wherever you live, taking these kinds of precautions is essential. After all, one day your child is going to become an adult. And helping them be safe in the community helps them develop the independence and support they need to be successful.
Before I had my son, I was a special education teacher. I was one of those teachers who believed that these "special" kids needed to be kept safe. After teaching in a self-contained special education class, my views slowly started to change.