Fact sheet on balance of risk and independence with Autism, an Autism Spectrum Disorder


Parents always face the issue of balancing the degree of risk and independence they allow their child. The presence of an Autism Spectrum Disorder such as autism or Aspergers syndrome complicates this process. One of the important things parents do is to help young people learn to manage and judge risk. As parents, you need to judge what risks are acceptable and make sure your young person has the necessary skills to avoid danger. Parents who encourage independence and allow a manageable element of risk are showing optimism and confidence in their child.

Decisions about risk crop up all the time — your child, maybe, wants to go to the milk bar alone, go to a party where you don't know the parents, cook something on the stove. Ask yourself:

• Does your child have necessary skills?
• Can you trust your child to follow the rules?
• What are the likely risks, including risks to others?
• Are there dangers outside his or her control?
• What would make it safe?

It may be tempting to put physical safety above all else, but saying ‘no’ too often can have a cost. Kids lose confidence, or rebel, or simply miss out.


Autism Spectrum Disorders and risk

The pitfalls and dilemmas faced by all parents can be magnified when the young person has autism or Aspergers syndrome. The young person may be less capable of anticipating danger, judging risk, or showing self-control. It may be harder to learn the skills needed to be safely independent. These might be physical skills, and/or skills related to behavior, judgment, memory and perception.

Inappropriate behavior can place the young person at risk, or a lack of social skills may lead to bullying at school. At the same time, if you try to protect your young person by restricting them more than others of their age, this can also affect their self-esteem and relationships with other young people.


What protects autistic children from risk?

Research has shown that some of the most important factors that protect young people from getting involved in some of the riskier activities of adolescence are a strong and caring family and school, and a sense of connection to family and school, coupled with personal skills that enable the young person to develop self-esteem and confidence. Other things that help are a stable family structure, open lines of communication, a pro-active approach to solving problems, and having a good relationship with an adult outside the family – someone who believes in the young person.


Managing risk in the context of autism & asperger's

It is always important to equip young people with the skills, knowledge and confidence to say ‘no’ to things they do not want to do. At the same time, risky activities are a normal part of growing up, and it is imperative to try to minimize any harm that may result.

Where autism or Aspergers syndrome are involved, there are further considerations. For example:
• Can the young person understand and remember instructions?

• Can the young person understand rules or laws and apply general rules to specific situations?
• Are impulsiveness and poor judgment issues?
• What sort of training or instruction does the young person need?

The following strategies may help:
• Set sensible and firm limits based on your family's values and respect for laws and regulations
• Be a good example and role model
• Try to keep the communication lines open within the family

• Listen to what your children have to say

• Respect their point of view (even if you don't agree with it).
Provide a ‘safety net’ of appropriate supervision

• Be aware of your child's friendships, know where they are at night, be awake when they get home.


Everyday risks with autism & Asperger's syndrome

For young people with Autism or Aspergers, the small steps toward independence that their peers manage easily may require extra training or supervision. If they lack foresight or are impulsive, some activities possibly should be avoided, controlled or prohibited.


Getting around outside the house

Very young children are generally under adult supervision when they walk to shops or cross the road. Sometime during primary school, many children begin to do these things without assistance. Throughout secondary school, young people are generally expected to get themselves to school and other places. With increasing independence, children and young people might, for example, want to walk to local shops alone, ride a bike around the local neighborhood or take public transport to social events as well as to school.

A young person will usually want to do what others their age are allowed to do. However, parents need to decide whether their child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder has, for example:
• The necessary skills for traffic safety
• The ability to remember rules

• The know-how to get where they are going and home again

• Knowledge of what to do if they have problems
• The necessary physical skills and reflexes for a bicycle or roller blades
• The ability to organize what they need to do ie. transport timetables and buying tickets.

If your child does not have the skills needed, then a structured learning program – combined with an appropriate ‘safety net’ – may help.


Stranger danger and trusting other

Some children and young people on the autism spectrum may be worryingly ready to trust and be friends with anyone and everyone. Rules need to be very specific and structured, about how to behave in particular situations. They need to be practiced over and over, in social situations. A useful strategy here can be the use of Social Circles where social stories can be used to teach children about personal safety.


Other everyday risks for Autistic children

Using household equipment like stoves and knives can by risky unless the sequence of steps is taught appropriately. Again, set very specific rules and practice and rehearse them repeatedly. Where necessary, you may need to put some activities off limits, or install protective devices around, for example, stoves. Talk to an occupational therapist about managing risks of this nature.

Some kids always seem to be looking for something ambitious — and possibly forbidden — to do. Try to step back and ask yourself what you would do for a child who didn't have an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Make sure lines of communication remain open, boost the young person’s self-esteem, encourage more positive friendships and provide appropriate supervision – for example, have friends visit your house, rather than letting your child go out with them.


Young people on the autism spectrum and driving

Obtaining a driving licence will not be possible for some young people with autism or Aspergers, but it will be an option for many others. Problems that may affect a young person’s ability to drive include:
• Physical weakness and/or poor coordination
• Difficulties in perception
• Difficulty concentrating on multiple things
• Difficulty in understanding maps and directions.

It is crucial that you find out the requirements to be met if someone is applying for a driver’s license and has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is important to get this done, as it provides you, your child and others with legal protection should an accident occur. Failure to disclose a disability that affects driving may be an offence, and any license or permit obtained by false statement could be rendered null and void. An assessment by an occupational therapist and/or a neuropsychologist is recommended.


See the Family and Carer issues section of the website for more information.

Click here to read about sexual issues and Autism Spectrum Disorders.


Click to finish this autism information fact sheet

Click here for the full range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
This autism fact sheet is under copyright www.autism-help.org

The pitfalls and dilemmas faced by all parents in balancing risk and independence for their child can be magnified when the young person has Autism or Aspergers syndrome