BALANCING RISK & INDEPENDENCE
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
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
• Knowledge of what to do if they have problems
• The necessary physical skills and reflexes for a bicycle or roller
• 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
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.
to read about sexual issues and Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
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