Children from an early age are taught about basic road safety and quickly learn the skills required to keep them safe from harm.
However, children on the autism spectrum face greater challenges when it comes to learning about road safety. Learning to navigate crossing a road or identifying when to use traffic lights demands complex skills – something that many of us may take for granted.
Hilary McGlynn is a community services manager at Autism West Midlands, a charity that provides support to individuals with autism in Shropshire and throughout the West Midlands.
She spoke to JT Hughes about the difficulties autistic children face when learning about road safety as well as how parents and caregivers can teach and reinforce these essential skills.
“The autism spectrum is very broad and some are more severely affected so they may never understand road safety. However, for most children, they will learn but it will take them much longer to learn those skills.”
“Most children learn by observing mum and dads’, and learn automatically from seeing what they do.”
“Children with autism aren’t able to do this so we have to teach them the rules, break it down such as holding hands with mummy and teaching the steps like in the Green Cross Code and looking for the little green man.”
Parents Concerned Over Road Safety Awareness
Autism creates obstacles for children learning about road safety due to the nature of their disorder.
They may lack awareness of danger or be easily distracted, meaning that parents and caregivers need to employ extra measures to compensate for any cognitive challenges children face so that they are educated effectively about street and traffic safety.
However, for this can prove challenging and requires much more work. The National Autistic Society said they have received numerous calls to their helpline from parents concerned over their child’s lack of road safety or awareness of danger.
It’s clearly an important key skill that all children need to develop early on so that risk of an accident is reduced. Traffic-related accidents account for a number of deaths and injuries amongst children, with figures from 2011 suggesting that 7 children on average were killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads every day – with the most common being pedestrians.
Research suggests that people with learning difficulties or disabilities are more at risk of being killed on roads. A 15-year study in California showed that the risk of adults with learning difficulties being killed on the road is almost three times greater than among adults without.
UK casualty statistics do not record learning difficulties or disabilities among people killed or injured on roads. This makes it hard to assess the risks for children with learning difficulties or disabilities.
Risks for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
“When a child’s stress levels are heightened, for example, something might not be going well at school, they may experience setbacks in what they have learned,” explained Hilary.
“Children on the autism spectrum often experience sensory and auditory problems. They may be affected by noise, when trying to cross the road it will be noisy and busy.”
“We zone it out and concentrate on safety but people with autism find that very difficult.”
“They can also become easily distracted, a child may see a dog across the road and want to go and see it, focusing on that rather than whether the road is safe to cross.”
Brake has put together a list of some of the behaviours and difficulties children with autism may display when it comes to acting safely near a road.
Difficulty in thinking and behaving flexibly – These children may not apply safety instructions or rules to every relevant situation. For example, if they have learned the green cross code when crossing a particular road but won’t be able to apply it to other roads or crossings
Difficulty understanding social contexts – They may not be able to respond to road safety in the context of what is right, wrong or what is safe or dangerous. They may find it difficult to apply these concepts to certain situations
Difficulty communicating and understanding others – may have difficulty understanding verbal instruction from adults who are supervising them on the roads and communicating difficulties they are having
Over or under-sensitivity to sights and sounds – Oversensitivity to lights and sounds may cause children to panic in reaction to certain lights and sounds. They may also have under-sensitivity due to lack of awareness of traffic.
Forgetful and easily distracted in the course of everyday activities – More likely to become distracted while crossing the road or cycling or forget to ‘stop, look and listen’ when crossing the road.
Strong interests which can cause distractions – An example of this may be a child who may have a strong interest in cars which could cause them to walk into the road without looking to see the car they like.
Learning About Safety through Social Stories
“Children on the autism spectrum need a much more visual approach and there are videos available on YouTube that aid learning,” added Hilary
She also advised that social stories are a useful visual tool in explaining to children the dangers of the road and why they should take care.
“Parents can use social stories, writing down all the steps involved in that particular skills and read it through with them. You can create it, very simply, for yourself and practice in real time with your child,” she said.
Socials stories can also provide spoken and visual information which can be used before an event, such as when crossing a road.
“A parent went out with their son and took photos of their journey and created a storybook which they can go back to and learn from, and take it out with them. It is very personal to him.”
Toys and interactive materials can also be used during role play about crossing the road safely. There are also a number of interactive games that also teaches about road safety.
Could Virtual Reality Help?
Virtual reality may be able to teach those with autism ‘social norms’, especially those involving spatial awareness which is a common issue for autistic individuals.
This could help increase awareness, behaviours and expectations when crossing roads, coping with traffic, sitting on buses and in more sensitive situations.
A team of researchers at The University of Haifa, Israel developed a virtual reality system with a number of scenarios designed to teach autistic children how to cross a road.
The simulation showed children a street with traffic lights and cars, teaching them how to cross the road safely without putting them under any undue stress. These skills are then later practised in the real world.
Where Can You Get Advice in Shropshire?
Autism West Midlands run a family support service in the Shropshire council area offering information, advice and training for parents.
They also offer support groups and family events. The Helpline 0303 0300 111 provides advice and information to anyone across the West Midlands. There are fact sheets and downloads on the website.