Teaching Self-Protection Skills to Individuals with Autism
One of the most important skills to teach any child is the ability to protect themselves. There are definitely some scary statistics about how often people with disabilities are taken advantage of or abused. I don't want to dwell on those statistics, instead I want to talk about how we can teach skills that will help people with disabilities keep themselves safe.
I was recently reading a book called "Transition Strategies for Adolescents and Young Adults Who use AAC". They talk about the importance of empowering people with disabilities by teaching them the skills they need to protect themselves. They further explain the importance of this concept in the following excerpt:
"Ensuring that an individual is constantly monitored, constantly in view, constantly accompanied is impossible. And even if possible, it would lead to a life of very limited quality. People with disabilities, then, often end up with fewer rights, less freedom and more restrictions than those serving jail terms for crimes...Protection by self is a far more appropriate and productive approach. Ensuring that people with disabilities have an understanding of the nature of abuse and the language to report it may seem radical, but it is the only way that makes sense." (p. 147, McNaugton and Beukelman, 2010)
As a sister and future guardian of someone with autism I understand that stepping back can be scary and difficult. As with most things we teach we need to do it gradually and we need to use evidence-based practices. There are two things that you can do now to help a person with a disability start to develop self-protection skills- provide opportunities to make choices and start teaching the concept of privacy.
Making choices is a simple way to teach people with disabilities to practice refusing and accepting. We start by presenting two choices and asking our patients/children which one they want (e.g. "Do you want chips or cookies in your lunch?"). By offering the choice and honoring the choice we are showing them that when they point/sign/verbalize they gain more control over their environment. We can further extend this by asking a simple yes/no question (e.g. "Do you want to play outside"). A yes/no response again gives them the opportunity to exert control over their environment through communication. Now picking leisure activities or snacks might be considered relatively unimportant. However, we are teaching a concept. If people with disabilities can learn to say "no" to small things, they will start to learn that they can say "no" to big and potentially dangerous things.
Secondly, start teaching the concept of privacy. This is something that can come quite naturally for typically developing children. They might close the door when they go to the bathroom, or not want to change clothes in front of certain people. However, privacy is something that we need to directly and systematically teach those with disabilities. We can start by labeling places that are private. I have used a picture of a single person to indicate places that are private, because typically only one person is in a private place. Many of our patients/children might still need help in a place that is considered private. For example, some older patients might be help wiping themselves in the bathroom or they might need help getting dressed. In these instances, it is important to give as much privacy as you can and explain your purpose in being in that private place. You can leave the door partially closed so that you can still monitor while giving privacy, you can make a habit of knocking on closed doors and asking for permission to come in before you do, you can look away during tasks that are particularly private (e.g. urinating). You might need to redefine "private". For children who are severely disabled and need help changing private might mean "me plus someone to help". Even if you are in a private place with your child/patient you can explain why you are there and that your purpose is to help.
It is never too early or too late to start teaching self-protection skills. The idea of teaching a potentially vulnerable person to take care of themselves might be scary, but it is essential. If we start small and start incorporating choice making and privacy into our daily routines we can make a huge difference in the lives of people with disabilities.
"Transition Strategies for Adolescents and Young Adults Who use AAC" by David B. McNaughton and David R. Beukelman
"Just Say Know" by David Hingsburger