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By Brenda Kosky-Deskin

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Traffic Safety Strategies For People With Autism

August 16, 2013   Comments (1)

How To's Car Safety Wandering & Bolting


traffic safety autismWhat "Look both ways before crossing the street" REALLY means...

Most of us have both heard and uttered the common phrase "Look both ways before crossing the street" countless times in our lives, realizing that it means so much more than simply looking to the left and to the right. What someone is really telling you to do by delivering this instruction is:

  • stop when you get to the curb;
  • look to the left, and then look to the right;
  • if, when looking, you don't see a car, you can cross the street;
  • if, however, you do see a car, make a judgment call as to whether or not it is safe to cross depending on many different factors including:
    • in which direction the car is moving;
    • how fast the car is moving;
    • how far away the car is;
    • whether or not the car is slowing down and the driver is planning to stop, which can fairly accurately be determined by making eye contact with the driver and having an unspoken acknowledgement from the driver that he sees you, he recognizes that you have the right of way as the pedestrian, and that he is going to stop for you so you can cross safely;
    • whether there is an electronic signaling device and if so, do you see a green light or walk symbol; and
    • whether there is a crosswalk, crossing guard or some other presence intended to guide people and traffic through the intersection.

Those of us who are 'neurotypical' learned all of these nuances of crossing the street much the same way we learned that when we get in an elevator, we face the front. It just came to us naturally. As we matured, we also mastered the art of non-verbal communication and gained the ability to figure out, at least to a certain extent, what people were planning as their next move based on their gestures, nods and other very subtle body signals. Furthermore, we became proficient at assessing risk and danger. This is not the case for many individuals on the Autism Spectrum. If you say to an autistic individual "Look both ways before crossing the street," there is a good chance that he will take you very literally and do just that – and then proceed to walk in front of a moving vehicle.

So what can we do to help protect people with Autism when it comes to traffic safety? There are basically two approaches:

A strategy for the advanced learner

For those who are able to read facial expressions and have the ability to grasp more abstract concepts like danger, you might be able to teach traffic safety skills to them by rote. This means basically reviewing every possible rule and street-crossing scenario you can think of using tools like social stories, pictures and videos, until they are memorized, and then going out into the real world to practice, practice, practice. Don't forget to teach about crosswalks and the buttons at some intersections that need to be pressed in order to make the light change.

If you decide to take this approach, be sure to incorporate generalization into your teaching. For example, your learner has to know that he must stop not just for cars, but for ALL moving vehicles, including motorcycles, campers, tractors, and the list goes on. He also has to become familiar with many different "walk" symbols and signs.

traffic safety, autism and carsMake sure you also plan for the unexpected. For example, if your learner arrives at an intersection where there is a green light, yet a police officer is directing traffic and giving pedestrians the hand signal to stop, will he understand that he cannot walk? Will he know what a sign or symbol for no jaywalking means? Be sure to brainstorm as many variations as you can to make sure that your learner is as prepared as possible should the unexpected happen.

As you can well appreciate, there are many people with Autism who do not have the foundation skills to be able to approach street-crossing this way. My eighteen-year-old son, Michael, happens to be one of them. Here is what we have done...

A Different Approach

I do not believe that Michael has the ability to truly appreciate the danger presented by an oncoming vehicle. This, of course, leaves him very vulnerable to the very real threats of traffic, even when he is in the company of a caregiver. So, we taught Michael the following sequence over and over again, until it became so firmly ingrained that he does it automatically with 100% reliability each and every time he arrives at a curb:

  • Michael reaches a curb, at which point he stops.
  • He looks at the caregiver with him and says, in his best approximation, "Stop. Is it safe?"
  • He waits until he hears a response.
  • If the response he hears is "Yes, it's safe", he continues walking.
  • If the response he hears is "No, it is not safe", he waits until he hears those magic words, "Yes, it's safe" and he continues walking.

Of course, we customized this protocol just for Michael. Adjustments can easily be made to accommodate virtually any individual's unique needs, deficits or strengths. For example, you may request that your learner automatically hold his caregiver's hand upon reaching a curb. For those who have stronger verbal abilities, you might be able to expand upon the sentence he has to say. If your learner is non-verbal, you would eliminate the question completely, and perhaps replace it with a hand sign. The key is consistency and lots of practice.

We have had such great success with this procedure that we are now teaching Michael to follow through with the same sequence every time he gets out of a vehicle. This affords me the time I need to grab my purse, put my keys away and walk around the car to get him and navigate our way through the parking lot together safely.

Michael, like many people on the Autism Spectrum, thrives with routine and sameness. This street safety protocol is one of the many ways in which we turn one of Michael's Autism symptoms into a strength. In this case, we are harnessing his incredible memory and desire for repetition in a way that helps ensure his safety and wellbeing.

Now, when we are out for a stroll on our quiet neighborhood streets, I'm often the one who forgets to stop every time we arrive at a curb! I'll always smile when Michael's far superior memory to mine brings us both to a safe halt.

August 16, 2013   Comments (1)

How To's Car Safety Wandering & Bolting

Julie Azuma said on September 12, 2013

Thinking about you and your family and thrilled to see you back to posting.


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