By: Alexis Eggenberger/
You teach your children the concepts of fire safety, safe street crossing, and “Stranger Danger”. You’re assured that since she is learning this at school and at home, she must understand these important things. You don’t think it could happen to you. But, in fact, it happens every day. It happened to us.
“B” was six years old at the time. She was a shy, well-mannered child who loved the outdoors, anything sports-related, and hated olives on pizza (unfortunately I learned that the hard way….when sweeping behind the couch one day!). B loved school and was friendly to adults she was familiar with, but never dared to walk away from her family or speak with strangers.
To this day, it seems crazy that it could have happened. A single slip in communication led to what could have been a detrimental outcome.
One morning, B was dropped off at our house. The individual who brought her was mistaken about the day and time of the drop off, and it turned out no one was home to receive B. The individual drove away and B stood at the front door knocking. After a few minutes, it became apparent to B that no one was going to answer the door. She began walking around to the first floor windows, banging on them and screaming. After about 15 minutes, an older woman that we didn’t know drove by the house and noticed B. She offered B a ride, and against all of our teachings, B got in the car with a stranger.
I can’t even imagine the panic that B must have experienced at that time. Although we had taught her the concept of “Stranger Danger”, we never specifically taught her what to do if someone wasn’t home. Don’t talk to strangers, we said. Don’t ever get in a car with someone you don’t know, we noted. We taught B what not to do in situations like this, but it absolutely never occurred to us to teach her what to do if something like this happened.
We were very lucky that day. The woman who found B was a kind-hearted, caring community member and called the police. While B was upset and scared, she was safe.
After that incident, we started creating what we call “safety plans”. Safety plans include what to do in various situations, who to call, and include memorizing pertinent information that might help in an emergency (names, addresses, and telephone numbers). These safety plans are reviewed on a regular basis and are also posted around the house. Safety plans are practiced in a variety of settings, including when we leave the house or are on vacation.
Last year, B had to put one of her safety plans into action when a family member experienced a health emergency. She calmly called for help and waited on the driveway, as instructed, until help arrived. I’m sure she must have been frightened, but she remained cool and collected, just as we had taught her. B’s ability to follow the safety plan allowed our family member to receive the critically needed medical care in the appropriate time frame. She was such a champ that day and we will never let her forget how proud we are of her.
We are endlessly grateful and forever in debt to the lovely woman who found B that day. This life changing moment could have gone in many ways, but it ended up being a very valuable lesson for everyone in the family. Lesson learned: instead of only teaching what NOT to do, also teach what TO do in an emergency. Practice, practice, practice! Review your safety plan at home, in the community, and when away from home. Update your safety plan when changes occur and make sure it is developmentally appropriate for your child. Think outside the box – when creating a safety plan, identify situations that you think could never occur. Although we can’t plan for every situation in life, we can provide our children with a framework for decision making and problem solving. Not only will this keep them safe, it will also help with their skill development for the future! Most importantly, remember that no one is perfect. These things can happen to the most organized, well-planned family. Hopefully, you’ll never experience the need for a safety plan. But, as they say, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Alexis Eggenberger, MSSA, BCBA, is the manager of the ProMedica Center for Autism, located on the campus of Bixby Hospital. Alexis is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Supervising Independent Social Worker, with many years of experience treating children with a variety of developmental delays and behavioral health diagnoses.by