Stranger Danger and Special Needs Children

Like many moms out there, I would put my kids in a plastic bubble and protect them from all harm if I could. I know that as much as I would like to do that, well it is just not the right thing to do. So instead, I do everything I can to teach my kids how to be safe. But what if one of those kids has some special needs? How do I teach my child with autism to trust “THE UH-OH FEELING” and go with their instincts when they have no idea what that means? How do we explain to them to not talk to strangers, and then encourage them to make eye contact, to talk to and even go off alone with a new therapist or teacher? That plastic bubble is looking pretty good right now isn’t it?

“Everyone is a Stranger at First!”
My boy is 11 and I thought that by now all the years and years of us reading social stories and role playing would have sunken in. I thought he would have understood the concept of Stranger Danger; I was wrong! The other day I watched my boy approach a strange man in a park sitting on a bench who had called him over. The minute it took me to race across the field was pure hell. When I reached my boy and dragged him away loudly stating so the man would hear that “WE DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS” there were tears in my eyes. I thought it could not get any worse, until my boy looked at me confused and very innocently said, “But mommy, he told me his name. He is not a stranger anymore. How will I ever meet any new friends if I do not talk to strangers? Everyone is a stranger at first!” I knew then that I needed to figure out a different way to make my boy comprehend this concept. I also knew that once I did, I needed to share it with you.

How to Teach about Strangers
Below is what I came up with after much research and after many conversations with both my children. It is not perfect, it is not a one size fits all solution to the problem, but it is a start. Read it and then please… TALK TO YOUR KIDS!

  • What is a Stranger? I realized that my son needed a more defined idea of what a stranger is. Pattie Fitzgerald from Safely Ever After suggests that we replace the word “STRANGER” with “TRICKY PERSON”. She goes further as to say that we need to remind our kids that: “ IT’S NOT WHAT SOMEONE LOOKS LIKE, IT’S WHAT THEY SAY OR WANT TO DO WITH A CHILD THAT MAKES THEM UNSAFE OR ‘TRICKY’.”
  • Safe Strangers, Safe Buildings. Since many of our kids are rule followers, we can use that to our benefit. However, we need to be careful how we do it. Telling them, “We never talk to strangers” could actually be dangerous. What if they get lost, or someone IS trying to hurt them? Some safety experts point out teaching children that a police officer is the only person they can reach out to for help is not a good idea as one may not be around when a child is lost or needs help.  Instead children should be taught that if they are lost, they should find a store and ask a clerk behind the cash register or someone in charge for help, or ask a mother with children.
  • The Never, Never Rule. There is one rule that we CAN and should install that can help keep our kids safe. Fitzgerald calls it the NEVER NEVER RULE.

“Never: accept candy or treats, enter someone’s home, go for a walk, or get in a car with someone unless you have your parent’s permission FIRST.”

I have my own Never Rule too. I will NEVER EVER just assume that my kids get it. I will continue to revisit the idea of “TRICKY PEOPLE” often. I hope you will too.

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