Springtime Safety Series Part 1: Defining “Safe”

May is hands-down my favorite month in Dallas. The sun is out, the temperatures are warm but not hot, and everything is starting to bloom. It is our shining moment to be outside comfortably in Texas…until September. So, it is only natural for all of us to want to be outside with our kids.

However, if you have a child with autism, taking him to wide-open spaces means thinking more than ever about safety for your child. If he gets separated from you, can he communicate? Does your child tend to break and run if given the opportunity (a “flight risk,” as I affectionately call it)? Is he drawn to water? Is he drawn to dogs or unfamiliar animals? As a parent, I’m sure you already know your child’s tendencies and the dangers that go with them. The question is, how can you combat these issues to prevent them holding you hostage indoors?

Over the new few posts, I want to take these issues on one at a time. Now, depending on your child’s language and developmental level, not all of these strategies will be appropriate. My hope is that my ideas might give your ideas a “jumping off point” that will work best for your individual child.

Defining “Safe”

Before we dig deep into each of these issues I mentioned above, I think we should begin by defining the concept of safety for your child. The way in which you do this will need to be based upon your child’s level of language and social cognitive development and your child’s individual behaviors and tendencies. It will be different for every child…but I’ll give a few examples.

For me, it is easiest to introduce hard concepts like this inside of social narratives.

Social narratives, most popularly associated with Carol Gray’s book, Social Stories, are an evidence-based practice shown to have success in teaching target social behaviors to kids with ASD. They describe the target behavior in a non-threatening and reassuring way using simple language so that the child can better understand a situation and therefore know how to respond to it. Social narratives explain the information and social cues, as well as perspectives and appropriate responses. To learn more about use of social narratives, check out my previous blog post on the subject.

We want to break things down to the kids in a way that teaches what we WANT them to do, without spending much time, if any, on what we DON’T WANT them to do. For example, if you want to teach a kid not to run around the pool, you should emphasizing walking around the pool. Don’t say, “don’t run.” Do say, “walk”. It should be a situation of “walking” versus “not walking” for them, not “running” versus “not running.” But I digress…we’ll get back to that.

In this case, we want to start by teaching the kids what “safe” means so that we can talk about things in terms of “safe” and “not safe.” For instance, being with mom in a store is safe. Not being with mom in a store is not safe. First, looking both ways; then crossing the street = safe. Not doing that = not safe. See what I mean? We also want to give the kids the logic that “safe = happy”.

Example Social Narratives

Now, I am going to be bold and give you a few different versions of how to teach safety, so that you might find one that will be at least close to a fit for your child. However, please, please, please run it past your child’s speech-language pathologist, ABA therapist, and/or teacher before presenting it to your child. The social narrative can and should address the individual behaviors that you want to promote (and conversely, the ones you want to prevent). Therefore, consultation with a professional who knows your child well is a MUST.

For the child with good reading/language comprehension (does not need pictures to understand complex concepts and/or units of language), I am providing these 3 versions of a social narrative defining “safe” ( Social Narratives-safe )in words only. However, if your child benefits from visual supports (which a large percentage of your kids probably do…I mean, even I like books with pictures), please check out this example Safety Book.  It is a basic social narrative in the form of a little book with picture symbols from Boardmaker Online by Mayer-Johnson.  (If you want to try out making your own materials, they are currently offering a free 30 day trial!)

If you don’t have time to make the jump to the free Safety Book, here’s a little sip just to wet your whistle. This is the simplest version of teaching the concept of “safe.”

DISCLAIMER: I wrote this as an example social narrative for a generic child who has a tendency to wander in “outside” areas alone. Social narratives should be customized though to your child’s individual behaviors. If you have specific safety concerns about your child, please talk to your child’s teacher and/or therapist about how to address the specific situation.



Sometimes I am safe.

Mom and Dad are happy when I am safe.

Sometimes I am in my house.

I am safe.

Sometimes I am in my backyard.

I am safe.

Sometimes I am in my school.

I am safe.

Sometimes I am on the playground with a friend.

I am safe.

Sometimes I am outside. I can see my mom.

I am safe.

But sometimes I am outside and I cannot see my mom.

This is not safe.

I can try to stay in a place that I can see my mom.

I will try to be safe.

Mom and Dad are happy when I am safe.


Notes on the Thought Process Behind the Decisions I Made in these Social Narratives (so you can learn):

  • Defining “hurt”—How to define “safe” for your child can and should be modified to be meaningful to your individual child’s developmental level, comprehension, and behaviors. In writing a generic definition of “safe,” I could have defined safe as being “I will not get hurt”. However, that’s not necessarily true. You could be running in your backyard (safe) and fall down (get hurt). So, we always want to stick with sentences that are true in all cases. I didn’t want to get into “you are less likely to get hurt”, “you probably won’t get hurt,” etc. It’s too much to process.   Here, I chose to simplify the concept of being “safe” by defining it as “Mom and Dad do not feel worried about me.” Whether they can show it or not, I truly believe all kids with ASD have empathy…and understanding that if someone else is worried, and worried is a negative emotion, the kids don’t like it. At the end of the day, all kids want their parents to be happy. So, that’s how I chose to address this. If your child has a lot of behaviors that are unsafe, such as running into the street, running in parking lots, swimming unattended, you can modify this safety social narrative to cover those.
  • Perspective–I have been careful to stay only in the perspective of the child. For kids with ASD, it can be very hard for them to know what another person can see. Therefore, I focused on “I can see my mom/dad/nanny” (choose what is appropriate) under the assumption that if they can see you, you can see them. IF your child happens to be good at understanding perspectives, you can switch these statements out to be “if my mom/dad/nanny can see me” type statements. Otherwise, stick with the perspective of your child.


Already there has been a lot of information presented and we still have a ways to go. If you need help, please feel free to post a comment on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/whiterockautism, or send me a message at contact@whiterockautism.com

Please be on the lookout for the next installment in the series. Let’s get our kids safer for summer!

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