Autism and School Safety

Asphalt children running caution marking

With the death of Avonte, a young boy with autism gone missing last week for a while in Queens and a local 3 year-old with autism locally who was left on a school bus for 6 hours, it made me reconsider the safety of the students at the schools I have worked. The schools put many safeguards in place, but how do we a related service providers piggyback on those safeguards?

Many of the schools do not have specific rooms where occupational and physical therapists can treat. Schools are short on space and often the therapists that come in are contracted with the district and are not employees of the school. We are often designated an area in a hallway or an alcove to provide services. Reflecting on one particular school, I was treating two children with autism that were considered by their teachers to be “runners.’ I was instructed to hold their hands to and from therapy as a safety precaution. The hallway space that was set up for OT and PT had a small table for fine motor work, a divider, a scooter board and whatever resources the individual therapists chose to bring that day. This area was next to a door that exited the building.

I was only at that school several times so I can’t go back and address my concerns, but this situation is occurring every day at different schools all over the country. Despite these being individual sessions with one therapist and one student, a therapist can look away for a second to set up an activity or respond to a teacher’s question, and the student can be out the door.

We all need to keep in mind the risks inherent in these situations and take actions to minimize them. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but if in the situation again I would insist on a more secure location. I encourage my colleagues to do the same.

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