Teaching Stranger Danger Skills to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Child abduction is a concern that all parents face. Moreover, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may be more vulnerable to lures from a stranger given the social impairments that are common in ASD. While child abductions are rare, they do occur. Just recently, a mother in Pennsylvania reported witnessing a man attempt to lure her son with ASD into the woods. Fortunately, in this case, mom was present and was able to scare off the suspect (you can read the full news article here). Stranger danger training is extremely important for all populations of children. For this reason, CARD researchers Ryan Bergstrom, Dr. Adel Najdowski, and Dr. Jonathan Tarbox are conducting a study to teach children with ASD how to properly respond to lures from a stranger.

Participants will include 3 children with ASD currently receiving applied behavior analysis (ABA) services. A multiple baseline research design was chosen for this study. This means the duration of baseline will vary for each participant to ensure that any changes observed in the participants’ behavior can actually be attributed to the training, rather than other possible factors.

All participants will receive training to appropriately respond to a stranger’s lures. Training will consist of role-playing conducted by the child’s therapist during regularly scheduled therapy sessions in the child’s home. Participants will receive praise for correct responses and prompting as needed. CARD researchers deliberately chose to implement practical training methods that could easily be incorporated into a child’s ABA program; realistic application of this training is crucial given the important subject matter. The goal of training is to teach the participants that if they are lured by a stranger, they should:

  1. Say, “No.”
  2. Run away.
  3. Tell a parent or caregiver.

To evaluate the effectiveness of training, probes will be conducted before and after the treatment phase. During these probes participants will be approached by a mock stranger in the natural setting (e.g., the front yard of the child’s home). The stranger will attempt to lure the child away by offering a highly preferred item. The participants will be scored based on whether or not they properly execute the three steps listed above.

Normally, when deciding which skills to include in a child’s ABA program, they are prioritized based on which skills the child is likely to use most. While the likelihood of ever using stranger danger skills is slim to none (hopefully none), teaching these skills is nevertheless important to better ensure the safety of children with ASD. Thus in this study, CARD researchers set out to evaluate a stranger danger training procedure that can realistically be incorporated into a child’s ABA program.

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