Intensive ABA Services Q&A: Stranger Safety - The Lovaas Institute

Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

Summer 2011

Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

Q&A: Stranger Safety

Personal safety in the community can be of great concern when parenting a child with autism. Proactive teaching about strangers can go a long way in enhancing your child's safety while providing you peace of mind. The following questions and responses concerning stranger safety were excerpted from an email discussion group among Lovaas Institute consultants.

Question 1

I have an 11-year-old client who is in a 5th grade general education class. He shows no fear of strangers and readily speaks to and follows unfamiliar adults in the community. Does anyone have ideas on how we can teach him to identify "strangers" in his daily environment and what to do if approached by a stranger?

Question 2

I'm in need of some fresh teaching ideas for stranger safety. I have a 5-year-old client who has had success with identifying strangers within her home setting (when a stranger is knocking on the front door); however, her stranger knowledge hasn't generalized to settings outside the home. She is currently initiating conversations with strangers out in the community (specifically adult men) and her mother is concerned about her sharing too much personal information.

Response 1

You can begin by sorting pictures of strangers vs. friends or, if this is too basic, practice labeling pictures of people as "strangers," "friends," or "family." Depending on the child you can then teach community rules, such as "you don't talk to strangers," etc. I would also look into videos on stranger danger - these resources would probably be available at the local library. The most effective method would need to be based on the child's learning style, but hopefully one of these might be a good starting point!

Response 2

In addition to sorting pictures of strangers vs. friends, I have expanded upon this by pasting large pictures of strangers or friends onto popsicle sticks, and then holding each one up like a mask and rehearsing what to say (or not say) to that individual.

I have also taught a general rule to "ask mom" or "ask the teacher" before saying anything to a stranger, approaching a stranger, or following a stranger. We applied the same rule to answering the front door, etc. By teaching the child to "ask mom first" before EVERYTHING, it really simplifies things so that she doesn't have to learn to discriminate between all the various possible situations.

I think the key is role-play! Out in the community, in stores, at the park, etc.

Response 3

We taught a child to categorize different pictures of people, then we role-played different scenarios and taught him how to handle the different situations (e.g. who he can talk to in a store such as employees vs. strangers). Next, we took him to different community locations to generalize the concept of "stranger" (just having him identify different people from afar), and last, we set him up in an actual situation. We took him to a toy store, stood back a bit, and then had a "stranger" approach him. The "stranger" was actually a friend of a friend who the child did not know. All the hard work paid off and it worked out really well.

Response 4

I have a 10-year-old client who has displayed impulsive behaviors with strangers and others in the community. We have addressed this with a "Social Rules" program. This is targeted like a game where a scenario is created using various Who, What, and Where cards (think Clue - Ms. Scarlet, with the rope, in the library/ Man I don't know, with a puppy, at the park). The client and instructor then work together to generate an appropriate response and an inappropriate response, and then role-play the appropriate one. Whenever possible, we attempt to address/recreate actual scenarios that my client has encountered and the parents readily contribute ideas. Something else to consider, we had to address authority figures separately (i.e., policemen, crossing guards, etc.) as my client over-generalized the concept of "Strangers" to include these people.

Response 5

I've taught stranger safety by having the child sort pictures of known (friends and family) versus unknown (strangers) people. Once this step was acquired, rules (e.g., give hugs, get candy, say hello to, tell them where you live, etc.) were paired with each group. We did it by sorting the actions (word cards) onto the friends group or the stranger group. We then practiced this expressively by holding up a picture of a known or unknown person and then asking, "Can you hug this person?" We also taught the child that for some actions (taking a candy, telling a person your number, etc) he had to first ask mom if he could do it. To test acquisition, we set up situations in the community. For example, his mom asked a friend (with whom the child was not familiar) to show up at a park at a time they would be there. At the park, the mother's friend approached the child and offered him some candy.

Response 6

One thing I have done is to teach guidelines for "acceptable" strangers (people you can talk to) versus "unacceptable" strangers (people you cannot talk to). You and the child's parents could determine who is an "acceptable" stranger and who is an "unacceptable" stranger. For example, acceptable strangers might be people in uniform (police officers, doctors, fire fighters, etc.). Acceptable strangers might also include employees at stores that the family frequents. Employees can typically be identified by their work attire and badges (e.g., Target employees wearing red shirts and name badges, etc.). The unacceptable strangers list might include unknown people in parking lots, people in line in the store, unfamiliar adults at the park, etc.

You could potentially teach the child how to identify each group of strangers via social stories, matching, role play, etc. There are many ways that it can be taught depending on the child's individual strengths. We tested the success of what we taught our client by having instructors the client did not know play the part of "unacceptable stranger" in mock settings. Once we felt the client had a firm understanding of acceptable versus unacceptable strangers, we worked with local stores and the fire department to practice this skill in community settings.

With a child that demonstrates strong social skills, you could also teach what is acceptable to talk about, to avoid giving out too much personal information. Maybe she could learn to give polite comments (e.g., "You have a pretty shirt," etc.).

Response 7

Another thing that I have done to help generalize this concept from pictures and role play to real life scenarios is to teach a "general rule" that it is permissible to return a greeting from an "acceptable stranger" or community helper (e.g., cashier, doctor) only IF a familiar adult (e.g., parent, caregiver, family member, teacher) is next to you. We found it necessary to teach and role play this "general rule" because this particular child would yell "stranger!" or hide behind his parent whenever an "acceptable stranger" greeted him while walking in the community with his family or at family parties.

Response 8

I also practiced role-play with two of my clients and it worked well both times. We used props to mimic the difference in characters (e.g., scarves, hats, glasses, etc.). We also used names of known people from his family and school (e.g., peers, teachers, etc.) and novel names for strangers in order to role-play various scenarios [e.g., "Let's pretend I'm Suzie from Math class" or "I'm going to be Tom (unknown name) and we are at the park"].

Within social stories, we presented scenarios in which the child was asked to describe an appropriate interaction and then we generalized to role-play. For example, meeting a person for the first time (hand shake or a simple "hello"). We also practiced appropriate interactions versus inappropriate interactions within social stories (e.g., giving a peer a high five vs. kissing a peer, hugging and kissing a parent but not a stranger, appropriate statements to both known and unknown people, etc.).

Do you have a story you'd like the share? Let us know here

The names of all children in this newsletter have been changed in respect for family confidentiality.

The Big Sneeze: Pretend you are going to sneeze and really exaggerate. Start to sneeze but then stop before actually completing it. Do this a few times to build anticipation before the big sneeze! For example, "Oh no, I have to sneeze! Ah Ah Ahhh Ahhh Ahh..oh, it went away." Then, "Oh, my sneeze is coming back! Ah Ahhh Ahhh Ahhh...Oh man, it went away again!" Then, "Oh wait, it's back! Ahh Ahh Ahh AHH-CHOO!!!" Try tickling the child when you say, "CHOO!!"

Two Man Band: Let the child lie on their side across your lap, and singing their favorite song, play them like a guitar (strumming their belly)! Rock out even harder by dancing around the room with your kidtar!

Cuckoo Clock: Hold the child under their armpits, and swinging them from side to side, chant, "Tick Tock, tick tock, I'm a little cuckoo clock! Tick tock, tick tock, now I'm striking 1 o' clock," then bounce the child up in the air and say, "Cuckoo!" Add an extra "cuckoo!" and bounce for each increment of time (e.g., "cuckoo! cuckoo!" plus two bounces for 2 o' clock).

Don't Go Anywhere: Pretend like you're leaving the room and say, "I'll be right back, don't go anywhere!" Then quickly pop back into the room and exclaim, "I said don't go anywhere!" Continue in a similar manner a few more times for silly fun!

Where'd it go? Using a stuffed animal, favorite character or other toy, have the child close their eyes while you "hide" the toy in an obvious but silly location (e.g., on top of your head, coming out of your sleeve, etc.). Then ask, "Hey, where'd it go?" and let the child find the toy. The child can also take turns hiding the toy!

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