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Teaching Community Safety Skills to Children with Autism

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Students with autism often need specific instruction to help them master new skills. Let's review some teaching strategies you may use to help your students learn to be safe in their communities.

Community Safety Skills

Parker is a sixth-grade student with autism. A typical outing with his parents can become frustrating and dangerous because of Parker's behavior. He frequently darts into the street, speaks with adults he doesn't know, and throws tantrums when he hears loud noises like traffic or loud music in a store. His parents and teacher, Mr. Sear, are noticing that he does not understand basic safety skills to help him get around the community. He cannot cross the street safely, he does not read road signs, and he has no idea who to talk to if he gets lost.

Parker's situation is not unique. Students with autism often need explicit instruction to learn new skills. They don't always learn simply by watching their parents' behavior or by hearing a teacher explain something one time. Repetition and deliberate practice will help students with autism master new skills, like how to find the exit in a store or who to ask for help if they get lost.

Teaching Strategies

Let's look at some strategies Parker's teacher uses to help him learn community safety skills. These strategies could be applied to students of varying ages and abilities. You will need to consider your specific students and adapt these strategies to fit the unique and individual needs in your classroom.

Task Analysis

Task analysis is breaking down a skill into small, manageable steps. Students with autism often learn better when a task is quick, simple, and clear. Task analyzing a skill and teaching one part at a time will help your students master the skill step by step until they can do it independently.

Mr. Sear uses task analysis to teach Parker how to cross the street. He breaks this skill down into the following steps.

  • Walk up to the edge of the street.
  • Turn your head to the right and look for cars coming in your direction.
  • Turn your head to the left and look for cars coming in your direction.
  • If you see cars coming, wait.
  • If no cars are coming, step down into the street.
  • Walk quickly across the street.
  • Step up onto the sidewalk on the other side of the road.

Parker practices and masters each step individually. After a few weeks, Parker can safely cross the road on his own as he performs these steps in order.

Task analysis might also be used to teach the following skills:

  • Getting on and off the bus
  • Walking to the bus stop
  • Shopping at the grocery store

Modeling

When a teacher shows a student correct behavior, children can learn by copying what they see. This strategy, known as modeling, provides a visual of exactly what a specific behavior or skill might look like. For example, a child might not know what to do when you say 'Raise your hand,' but if you raise your hand while giving the verbal prompt, they can see what you mean. It is important to keep in mind that most students with autism will not master something when you model it once. However, consistent and deliberate modeling over several days or weeks can be effective.

Mr. Sear uses modeling to teach Parker what to do when he gets lost. He explains how Parker can know when he's lost, how to find a safe person to ask for help, and how to ask for directions. Mr. Sear models this skill at school, talks through it while he demonstrates, and has Parker follow him to listen and observe. Another technique Mr. Sear uses is known as video modeling. Mr. Sear works with another sixth grader in his class and films him as he pretends to be lost in different situations in the community. This student models how to behave when he gets lost, following the same behaviors that Mr. Sear demonstrated. Parker watches the video to see and learn from his peer's behavior.

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