One of my great joys is how much time I’m able to spend with my nephew, a former Academy360 Lower School student who is now 15 and has moved on to high school. Over the years we’ve shared many trips into the community: doctor visits; sporting events; seeing movies; dining out; visits to parks, museums, and way too many Chuck-E-Cheese arcades; plus a near-infinite number of shopping trips.

While where we go varies, there’s one constant no matter where it is: Practicing safety skills.

Whether in on an escalator, crossing the street, or particularly in parking lots – knowing how to move safely through your environment is crucial. But for children on the spectrum, “Stop, look, and listen” is complicated. To be effective, parents and caregivers need to break down the nuances of pedestrian safety into discrete steps. For the kids, it takes practice, practice, practice and more practice.

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At Academy360, teaching community safety is built-in to different lessons and activities through a team approach involving teachers, therapists and all staff in the classroom, says Betsy C. Hutchinson, speech and language therapist at Academy360.

Students are taught the verbal and visual cues necessary for recognizing traffic and being safe in a combination of classroom lessons and “in the moment” sessions while on CBI and other class trips.

“It’s about understanding the actions that accompany the signs, so then they need to take what they see in the classroom and apply it to the outside,” says Tziporah Wasserman, an A360 classroom professional and After School Program coordinator. “This is something we even review on the bus – if we see a stop sign, what does it mean?”

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My nephew, as with many individuals on the spectrum, has difficulty focusing on his surroundings, which is one of the biggest obstacles to demonstrating the safety behaviors they understand in the classroom.

“It’s not that they don’t know,” says Betsy. “It’s that in the moment they are internally or externally distracted by what is going on within and around them. Teaching them bodily and environmental awareness is something we reinforce over and over. Because, no matter what skill level the child is at, if you’re not paying attention you put yourself in danger.”

When out in the community on CBI or other class trips, students are always accompanied by a staff member, who use the trips to continually put classroom knowledge in real-world practice.

It becomes a mantra, many teachers say. “Look left, look right, pay attention. Are there cars, is it safe to cross,” says Betsy. “We practice “total body listening,” with eyes, ears and mind. It’s about using all your senses over and over until, hopefully, it becomes second nature.”

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Helping my nephew master these skills is an important goal for my sister and brother-in-law. For several years his summer programming has included trips to parking lots to model and practice safe behaviors such as exiting a car safely; identifying crosswalks, curbs, and safety signs; and developing awareness of moving vehicles. Before outings he reviewed social stories with aides. Then, together we visited less-trafficked parking lots and simulated situations involving these skills, with one aide modeling and guiding safe behaviors, a second aide monitoring and directing real-world traffic, and myself behind the wheel of a (very slowly) moving car.

As any parent knows, it’s a long process. Our family practices these skills with him daily. Even though it’s second nature and tempting for adults to just cross when recognizing it’s all clear, we make it a habit to look for crosswalks, stop at curbs, point at signs – anything to help generalize the valuable skills he’s learned at school, on CBI trips, and in daily life.

We’ve had success at frequently-visited locations, such as the supermarket, the mall, and local restaurants. A big win this year has been at his new high school, which has a very busy drop-off and pick-up spot outside the school doors. There is a long line of buses and cars and people shouting – a sensory overload that can make focusing problematic.

From Day One, we repeated the same steps over and over: Where is the crosswalk? Where do we stop on the sidewalk ramp? Where do we stop on the median? Where is the curb, the second crosswalk, the stop signs, which direction do the vehicles come from? For him it’s complex trip from Point A to Point B.

And he’s getting it. “Where do we go,” I ask when we leave school. He leads the way to the crosswalk, navigating crowded sidewalks and distractions. Stopping at the curb requires minimal prompting. We’re working on actually *looking* left and right, and not just pointing. We may never reach the point where he 100% can go it alone, but it’s all about making progress. One trip at a time.

Below are some resources available for parents working on theses skills.

Traffic Safety For Children With Special Needs

Guide to Teaching Safe Walking

Safety Strategies for People with Autism

Street Safety for Your Special Needs Child

Wandering in Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders

North Carolina Department of Transportation: Core Concepts of Teaching Walking

Safe Kids: Pedestrian Safety Tips

5 Tips on Teaching Safety Skills to Children with Autism

YouTube: Can a Child with Autism Cross the Street?


Street Crossing Safety Game for Autistic Children