Behavior-Friendly Home Safety for Children with Autism

The Team
The Team

When your home includes a child with autism, it’s important to maintain a safe and sensory-friendly home environment.

According to the Autism Self Advocacy Network, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) “is a neurological variation that occurs in about one percent of the population and is classified as a developmental disability. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 59 children in the U.S. has been identified with ASD.

One of the primary diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder is repetitive behavior. One of the key items of evidence to support the diagnosis is an insistence on sameness and an inflexible adherence to routines. Therefore, keeping the home environment routine-oriented is beneficial for children with autism.

There are also some inherent in-home safety risks that come with raising a child with autism. The National Autism Association reports that 48% of children with ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment, so parents have to get creative.

The answer is a sensory-friendly home integrated with home security system. Parents of children with autism are encouraged to explore and utilize tools like smart home technology and to establish sensory-friendly spaces in the home. Beyond home security systems and smart home tech, parents can explore other critical safety solutions to reduce anxiety and to help keep their home and family protected.

Home security and restricted play

A hallmark symptom of a person with ASD is obsessive, repetitive behavior, for instance when a person with autism demands to play with the same toy every day at the same time. Their compulsion is innate, driven by the way their brain is wired. Some children can become obsessed with certain objects that could be a risk to their wellbeing. In preparing your home, you may want to consider utilizing the following tools:

  • Light/outlet covers, if a child likes to play with switches or outlets
  • Magnetic locks on cabinets
  • Cameras set up in shared spaces to monitor behaviors
  • Locks on ovens and the refrigerator
  • Sensors/proximity alarms on alarms on windows and doors to make sure a child stays in the home if they have an obsession with opening knobs or latches, or to alert you when certain doors and drawers are being opened
  • Smart locks, so the child doesn’t open the door and wander

In the event the child does get out of the home, consider installing external security cameras and fencing so they can stay protected or so they can safely play outdoors.

How home security interfaces with common autistic behaviors

Lack of interest

Young children with an ASD experience difficulty learning how to engage with other people. Some show little interest in people at all, or may develop unusual interests.

Motivating individuals who have autism spectrum disorder is important to their success, but can be quite challenging, since they often have restricted interests. Parents of a child with ASD are encouraged to discover what their child finds fascinating and to use this as a motivator for learning about safety in the home.

Examples of restricted interests might be fixations on trucks, numbers, spaceships or U.S. presidents. Whatever the special interest is, use it to your advantage. Parents can use pictures, play and games to expand on the interest and show their child what to do if there is a fire or other emergency.

Creating a scenario pertaining to the child’s interests may intrigue the child to learn about topics and situations they otherwise wouldn’t, like emergency routes or how to call 911. You can also incorporate the special interests into teaching your child the signs of safety hazards, so in the future they will notice when something in the home is out of the ordinary or when someone in the home is unresponsive.

On your rounds to teach the safety hazards, be sure to point out the alarms. Beyond just smoke detectors, allowing your child to take ownership of securing the home and setting the alarm and monitors will pique their interest and have a lasting effect. This can be done by using a tablet or screen to show visual cues to the child.

Hyper- and hypo-reactivity to sensory input

Children with ASD often have a different response to sensory stimuli than their peers. Research indicates 70-96% of children with autism have some level of difficulty with sensory processing.

Some children with autism react to certain sounds or textures and may seem indifferent to temperatures or pain. Since all children are different, understanding your child and knowing their likes and dislikes is important when creating a safe space at home.

Some ideas for how to create safety when you have sensory challenges in the home are:

  • Use home automation to control alarms throughout the home
  • Know how to turn off fire/security alarms quickly with a mobile shutoff, in case of emergency, to reduce stress on the child
  • Use different colored lights to incite emergency responses without auditory signals
  • Install dimmable lights to reduce stress in an emergency
  • Install smart home technology that make color and intensity adjustments easier
  • Use apps to unlock and lock doors remotely, in case of emergencies (this will allow people to get into the home if you cannot be with your child during an emergency)

You may also want to look at the lighting you use on the exterior of your home. For example, it may make a difference to remove floodlights outside your child’s window so they don’t experience sensory issues.

Repetitive body movements

Ericka Wodka Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist in the Center for Autism and Related Disorders and the Department of Neuropsychology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, told the Interactive Autism Network “What is really defining about [a repetitive behavior in a person with ASD] is that it is unusual, appears non-functional, and occurs over and over again.” Examples might be hand-flapping, rocking or lining up toys.

Because of these movements, some children can be clumsy and might hurt themselves without someone witnessing the incident. For this reason, setting up in-home cameras in spaces the child frequents for monitoring is helpful.

You may also want to increase the safety of your home environment by adding corner protectors, and creating areas with pillows for playtime/downtime. A “safe place” with noise-canceling headphones, relaxing objects and a soothing soundtrack for when a child becomes over-stimulated can also reduce stress, as well as the chances of them hurting themselves.

Resistance to touch

Another common autism characteristic is a strong sensitivity to touch. For a child with ASD, light touch can be more unpleasant than deep touch. Unexpected touch, even from a loved one, can be very unpleasant, as can touch from distant acquaintances or from strangers.

As it relates to home security and creating a sensory-friendly environment, it is important to consider not all children feel comforted by being physically picked up if there is an emergency. In fact, this may even cause the child to shut down or become aggressive.

Since the touch sensitivity differs per child, it is important for parents to know their child’s triggers so they may address it properly if an emergency were to occur. Discussing these sensitivities with your child is important so they are equipped to verbalize these boundaries to first responders.

It is also helpful to show your child the exit plan and other safety gear in the house (e.g. alarms, sensors, fire extinguisher, etc). For non-verbal children, try providing emergency cue cards or showing an emergency escape route map – possibly one involving the child’s restricted interests.

In preparation for an emergency, it may also be beneficial to have sensory-friendly lights lining the hallway to indicate the proper exit path, so your child can exit quickly on their own instead of being picked up and carried out.

As an added measure, try to make sure you know where your child’s favorite play objects are, or have a spare in your emergency/evacuation kit. Using an object your child connects with to act as a security net is also useful for relieving stress during an emergency.

Difficulty understanding emotions

Children with ASD generally have trouble understanding other people’s emotions. A contributing factor is the difference in how they scan faces.. People with ASD tend to have their attention less on the eyes and more focused on the mouth, meaning the input they receive from a person’s face tells them less about what that person is feeling.

If your child has a difficult time understanding simple statements, questions or directions, smart speakers and voice assistants can serve as a guide to help them get through their daily routine. Voice assistants can help your child understand verbal cues without any of the distractions or stress of trying to read body language.

Furthermore, in-home automation systems don’t have bright screens that could overstimulate, and Amazon Alexa, specifically, has a few features parents of a child with ASD may find useful. Scheduling standing timers and reminders through the Alexa app can keep children on task, and, once a task is completed, parents can issue a a rewards activity through Alexa, such as a game, trivia, or asking Alexa a question.

Exploring your child’s emotions

Knowing how your child behaves when they feel negative emotions — such as discomfort, fear or anxiety — is vital. One way to familiarize yourself with your child’s negative response to stimuli is to install an indoor camera to monitor their child while they are in a room by themselves.

This will also help to alert you when your child is in crisis. If they cannot communicate with you when something goes wrong, you will get a fuller picture of the situation by observing their behavior through the camera. Smart home systems offer indoor cameras in the bedroom, so you can monitor your child even at night through any mobile device with a live feed. Watching footage can also help you see how your child with autism is progressing in their therapies and other things you may be working on.

If there is something upsetting that occurs in your child’s day, setting up a safe space where they can calm down is critical. This space should have the following features:

  • Calming colors and lights
  • Tactile items the child can use (e.g. palm-sized squeeze balls, play foam, sensory bands for around the wrist, other fidget toys)
  • Opportunities for deep pressure, like using a bean bag chair or a weighted vest
  • A sensory corner, with screens and other items for the child to interact with
  • Play equipment that allows for large motor movement

Since each child is different, you may want to track your child’s repetitive behaviors so you can proactively create a less stressful environment. One way to do this is to create a chart with different pictures of emotions and even cue cards so the child can identify what they are experiencing. Additionally, in-home therapy can help.

Nonverbal communication

Communication challenges have always been considered a core feature of autism. Because ASD operates on a spectrum, communication challenges look different in each child. Clinicians are now recognizing that people with autism can have strong verbal skills, yet they may come across as awkward communicators, or make more speech errors than their peers. Other people with autism are nonverbal altogether.

For children with nonverbal communication, when it comes to teaching safety in the home, try using a tablet or cue cards to communicate simple commands with first responders.

The Amazon Alexa can also serve as a communication device for nonverbal children with an ASD. Parents can connect their voice assistants to their home security system, so their child can call 911 hands-free. Keep in mind, children can also call from a regular line if they are nonverbal; the operator will get the address and respond to the call.

Again, home security cameras are a great idea for children who have difficulties with communication. Parents of children who do not have words to communicate can visually monitor their child’s behavior to be aware of when they might need help or redirection.

Whatever technique you use to help guarantee security around your child’s communication challenges, you will find it helpful to invite them to have ownership in the process through simple steps and cues.

It is all about preparation

Getting your home ready for what could go wrong is especially important when raising children with autism. The variety of challenges children with ASD often experience, such as troubles with communication, touch, repetition, and sensory processing presents obstacles to safety, but they can be overcome with preparation and the right tools. Proactively building your home’s security system around these challenges will help you, and your child, feel more secure and less stressed.