Autism & Danger Awareness

Some autistic children have an underdeveloped sense of danger, so here are some tips to help keep them safe

Pedestrian safety traffic light with red do not cross hand

It’s common to hear things like “kids with autism have no fear” if they jump from great heights or run out in front of cars seemingly without a care, but this assumption is based on a misunderstanding between fear and an underdeveloped sense of danger. They have plenty of fear, you just can’t be scared of things that you don’t find scary.

So why aren’t these dangerous things scary for some people?

How do we sense danger?

Signals from the world around us are picked up and fed to a small almond-shaped area deep in our brain called the amygdala.

This part of the brain has long been suspected to play a part in autism, and has a major role to play in assessing danger.

  • It learns which things around us are dangerous
  • Encodes and remembers what they look like
  • Recognizes them when we see them again
  • Figures out what we should do about it

How does autism affect danger awareness?

When a person doesn’t respond to danger with fear it means that the amygdala is having trouble accurately identifying and remembering which things in their environment should be considered a threat.

It’s still not very well understood what the difference is in the amygdalas of people with autism, but it seems that it undergoes rapid growth early in childhood and then burns out resulting in later shrinkage. Whatever the physical cause, it’s clear that something along the way is interrupted in this process of remembering and recognizing dangerous things.

There are other aspects of autism which can make it difficult to identify threats. People who are not autistic tend to learn about danger when they get injured, hear a warning, think ahead to imagine a bad outcome, or recognize signs of fear like a thumping heartbeat.

Autistic people can have trouble with all these things,  like prediction, language, sensing and interpreting feedback from their bodies, picturing scenarios that haven’t yet happened, and cause and effect. This can make it difficult for them to recognize dangers in their environment.

What can you do to help?

Don’t take safety for granted

We tend not to notice many of the dangers around us until they become a problem. We know that most of the time we’re safe, so it’s okay to rely on our natural defence mechanisms to kick in when we need them to protect us.

So sometimes it’s easy to forget just what those dangers are. Take a good look at your surroundings and assess them for safety, preventing or monitoring access to anything that might put kids at risk of injury (particularly sharp equipment, choking hazards, roads and swimming pools).

Don’t rely on fear for protection

It’s easy to assume that kids will naturally avoid the things that everyone knows to be scary or threatening. These assumptions may not apply to children with autism, who might have difficulty identifying danger and staying away from threats or risky situations. Keeping them safe must always be a top priority while they’re in your care.

Teach explicit safety rules

Explain exactly what they can and cannot do, and what could happen to them if they don’t follow the rule. Take time to go over safety rules with them 1:1 at a time when their attention is not divided, and make sure that they’ve understood. Remind them of dangers and safety rules often, especially after school breaks and in new environments.

Keep it going

Be aware that you might need to have a higher level of danger protection in place, and for longer, than you might do for non-autistic children.

14 July, 2012 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.