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Monday, October 15, 2012

"Tricky People" and Keeping Children With Autism Safe From Abuse

At my son's 5 year old checkup, the doctor asked if we had been teaching him about "stranger danger". While we don't often talk about it, children with disabilities are considerably more vulnerable to being sexually abused than other kids - 4 to 10 times as likely, according to statistics on Parents for Megan's Law. If you think about it, it makes sense that kids with autism would be more likely to be abused. Think about the minimally verbal child who cannot accurately tell his parents what happened. Or the highly verbal child who is weak in the Social Thinking domain and is less likely to recognize "off" behavior that could indicate that a person is not to be trusted. As uncomfortable as it is for us as parents, clearly this is not a topic that can be avoided.

There is a powerful article on Autism Underground titled "The Short Bus - That Parent" telling one family's experience with a predatory bus driver on their daughter's special needs school bus. The parents heeded the red flags (the driver was giving her candy, sitting next to her on the school bus, counting down the days to her birthday), and got the driver removed from the route (although distressingly he may still be driving other children). The conclusion was that we should all be willing to stand up and be "that parent" - the one who is willing to be seen as an overprotective pain if that is what it takes to keep our kids safe.

So what can we do to help protect our children from becoming abused? There are a lot of tools that are useful, and which can be adapted to address the topic in a non-terrifying way with kids with autism. Every parent should read the article "Tricky People Are the New Strangers" which discusses the work of Pattie Fitzgerald of Safely Ever After.The point she makes is that it we don't necessarily want to teach our kids about "stranger danger" in the old sense that all strangers are bad and to be avoided. Why? First of all, because they might need the help of a stranger one day. If your child is lost, they need to know who they can ask for help, which is where the concept of "Safer Strangers" comes in (more on this later). Secondly, statistics bear out that children are in far greater danger of being abused by either a family member or someone they know from the community like a coach or family friend. Therefore, the concept of tricky people, which are adults who do things like ask for help from a child, are "too nice" (always bringing gifts, offering to babysit), or tell a child to keep secrets from their parents.

To introduce these safety concepts to a child with ASD, it will be helpful to break them down into steps. I am by no means a child safety expert, but this is how I have been thinking about teaching personal safety to my own son.

1. Start with basic relationships. Teach the difference between family, friends, and strangers. I started by making a family tree with pictures of everyone in our family. From there, we used a sorting activity where we sorted people into friends and strangers. I pointed out if you do not know someone's name, they are definitely a stranger and he should never go somewhere with a stranger (I can't totally let go of the "stranger danger" concept). At the same time, we talked about how new kids we meet at the park are also strangers, but it is okay to play with them (but not to leave the park with them).

2. Define how we share space with others. This is a useful activity for children on the spectrum from a social skills perspective, and also in terms of appropriate and inappropriate touching. There are some good activities on this topic in the social skills book for young children "Playing It Right! Social Skills Activities for Parents and Teachers of Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Including Asperger Syndrome and Autism".

3. Clearly explain which body parts are considered the child's "private parts" or "bathing suit" parts using the correct anatomical names. Teach them exactly who may touch them and in what context (ie, Mommy or Daddy to help you wash and the doctor during an exam, but no one else). I have not yet read this book yet, but Pattie Fitzgerald has one on the subject called "NO Trespassing - This is MY Body!" that is well reviewed.

4. Teach children about Safer Strangers, who are the people in public they can turn to for help. For example, if your child is lost in a store, they could ask the clerk to help them find their mom or dad. I made a task about this introducing Community Helpers and giving my son cards to match the Community Helper to the place where they work. There is also a good iPad app called "Staying Safe and Safer Strangers" which is a Social Story introducing the idea of Safer Strangers. I loved this tip from Pattie Fitzgerald: a mom with kids is a safer stranger wherever you are.

5. Explain "Tricky People" and the red flags that children should watch out for. Given that our children with ASD may have a difficult time understanding motivation and identifying the perspective of others, concrete examples of suspicious behavior will be particularly useful. There is a list of safety rules for children on the Safely Ever After website as well as a list of red flags for parents. Useful tips like like "Safe Grownups Don't Ask Kids for Help" (ie, the man who wants help finding his lost puppy) are probably going to be more helpful for our children than tips like "trust your gut".

A key tip that Pattie Fitzgerald gives is that there is no need to terrify kids with this information; just present it in a matter of fact way at a pace that makes sense for your child. And as parents, we all need to be willing to be "That Parent".

Do you have any books or programs you have found helpful for teaching personal safety to your children? If so, please share in the comments below.

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