It's important to teach any child how to react to unfamiliar adults, but there are some special considerations and techniques to keep in mind what you coach a child with autism about strangers. Challenges like difficulty processing non-verbal communication signals and the possibility of over-generalizing relationships can make it all the more important to help children form a good social script for these situations.
Don't Rely on the Child to Recognize Dangerous Situations
A child on the spectrum may not see the non-verbal social cues that could tip him or her off about a dangerous situation. You cannot count on the child identifying threatening body language and tone of voice. You also can't rely on the child to identify when someone is trying to trick him or her, as people on the autism spectrum often take things very literally. Instead, you'll need to create a standard scale of familiarity and clearly define appropriate responses.
Define Strangers vs. Familiar Adults
It's not uncommon for kids on the spectrum to classify and respond to all adults, both familiar and unfamiliar, in more or less the same way. This may come from a difficulty in gestalt classification or, in other words, the tendency to over-generalize without taking into account details like situation, familiarity level, and other social cues. To help a child understand that not every adult is the same, you can use a number scale:
- "1" - An immediate family member, someone the child knows well
- "2" - A good friend, grandparent, teacher, or someone with whom the child interacts daily
- "3" - An acquaintance or a person with whom the child interacts regularly, such as the barista at your favorite cafe or a friend's mom
- "4" - Someone who interacts with the child occasionally in a professional capacity, such as the postal delivery person, the cashier at the grocery store, or a waitress
- "5" - Someone who has not interacted with the child before and has no reason to interact with the child, such as other diners in a restaurant or people walking by on the street
It can be helpful to print up photos of each of these types of people and put that relationship's number next to the image. Then, spend some time practicing assigning numbers to people with the child.
Create Relationship Familiarity Rules
Once the child has spent some time practicing assigning relationship numbers to people in the community and in his or her life, it's time to talk about what is appropriate with different relationships. It's essential that you very clearly define appropriate reactions and interactions based on familiarity. In many cases, these rules will need to be very specific and very clearly defined because the child may take them very literally.
Private Parts - Only "1s" or the Doctor
Unless the child requires toileting help from aides, caregivers, or teachers at school, stress that he or she should only show private parts to those with a relationship level of "1" or to the doctor. If the child requires toileting help, you might extend this to a "2." Define what parts are private, being very specific. Then walk through responses the child might give if asked to reveal those parts to someone with the wrong relationship number. Be sure to include bringing the event to the attention of a level "1" adult.
Getting in the Car - Only "1s," "2s," and "3s" if There's a Reason
The classic scenario of a stranger enticing a child to go to the car can be somewhat challenging for kids with autism. First, it's not just "5s" or total strangers; it's also "4s" and even some "3s." So go through each number carefully using this scenario, having the child practice the appropriate response. For example, you might use this situation and response guide:
- If a "1" or a "2" asks you to get in the car, you get in the car.
- If a "3" asks you to get in the car and a "1" has told you it's okay, you get in the car.
- If a "3" asks you to get in the car without a "1" telling you it's okay, you find a "1" or "2" to ask.
- If a "4" or a "5" asks you to get in the car, you say, "No!" and find a "1" or a "2" right away.
Opening the Door - Only "1s" and "2s" if No One Is Home
Another traditional stranger scenario is a knock on the door when no adults are at home or the adults are otherwise occupied. This is especially important for older, higher functioning kids who may stay alone or with siblings. Explain that the child's response should be to only open the door to "1s" or "2s." If you want to include some "3s," list their names specifically for the child.
What to Do When Lost
Getting lost can be a problem for any kid, but it's a serious issue for some children on the spectrum who may have a tendency to wander. Teach the child how to handle this situation by clearly defining safe people, such as police officers. You can also help the child identify another mom by clearly defining that a mom will have small children with her and may be pushing a stroller and carrying a diaper bag. Rehearse asking for help so the child understands what to do.
Educating Kids With Autism About Stranger Danger
The key to handling stranger danger with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is to be very clear in defining familiarity relationship and responses. Avoid non-specific rules, which may cause the child to over-generalize and become anxious or fail to respond to a threat appropriately. This isn't a one-time conversation. It's a dialogue you and the child will have over the years as social skills evolve and community involvement increases.