How to Keep Autistic Students Safe at School

Providing a safe learning environment for autistic students

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Guest Blog Written By: Adam Coughran, Safe Kids Inc. 


April 2, 2022 is Autism Awareness Day. Autism is a developmental disability that can impact how individuals communicate with and respond to the world around them. By spreading awareness, we can ensure students with ASD receive the modifications and accommodations they need to flourish in our schools.  

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) connect uniquely to the world around them. Many have limited situational awareness, and it can be difficult for them to understand what is safe versus harmful. Despite the increased challenge of teaching students with ASD about school safety processes and protocols, it’s imperative they learn how to stay safe in school. We share tips below on how to conduct safety drills and build specialized safety plans for students with ASD. 

Conduct School Safety Drills for Students with Autism

School safety drills can be challenging, and sometimes even dangerous, for students with ASD. This is typically caused by drills changing the student’s daily routine and subjecting them to loud noises or chaotic visual stimuli—all of which can impact the student’s behavioral stability and physical reactions. Many students with ASD may scream, cry, become withdrawn, or have uncontrollable outbursts that can last for minutes or hours.    

Because of the challenges and overall lack of resources available to schools, many principals, teachers, or the student’s parents/guardians may decide to opt the student out of the school safety drills. But this just makes these already-vulnerable students even more vulnerable. It also places an increased burden and responsibility for the student’s safety on their teacher or aid in the event of an emergency. 

Schools must typically follow developmentally appropriate guidelines when conducting drills. For students with ASD, that may mean starting with simple exercises and using pictures or stories to teach about drill expectations. These fictional stories demonstrate how students wait, stay quiet, listen to instructions, exit a classroom, and perform other skills during an emergency response. Providing context and explanation to the drill (lockdown, fire drill, natural hazard) can decrease the negative behavioral reaction while increasing the ability for positive and appropriate student response. Incremental progression of drill requirements may also help in student understanding of required concepts, such as simply practicing leaving a classroom at a time other than recess or lunch or turning off the lights and sitting quietly. These building blocks of safety may occur over weeks of instruction that ultimately cumulate in a prolonged drill of putting all the pieces together.  

Develop Individualized Safety Plans for Students with Special Needs

Students with ASD may have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that is specifically designed for them. School administrators, parents, guardians, teachers, aids, first responders, and other appropriate stakeholders should be included in the development and implementation of the plan. It’s not uncommon for parents or guardians to specifically request their students be exempt from emergency drills due to their prolonged adverse reactions. During the IEP process, it’s important to express the need for student equity and access to critical emergency information (participating in drills) and to ensure specialized drills for the school’s student population with ASD. It’s especially important for people who regularly engage with the student to be involved and trained in the plan. Student needs may change over time, so having a continued process to review and revise the plan throughout the year is just as important as its original development. 

Consider various emergency situations—like fires, violent intruders, and weather-related events—as well as what the student will need to stay safe and calm in each one. It’s recommended each student has a personalized “go kit” with supplies like noise-cancelling headphones, snacks, stuffed animals, and sensory fidget items that can help reduce overstimulation. Pictures of the student’s family or letters from loved ones can help relieve anxiety and create reassurance for the student in the absence of a familiar or safe environment. All these details should be included in the IEP. 

Effective Strategies Keep Students with Special Needs Safe

When a California elementary school went into lockdown during lunch, a second-grade student with ASD quickly evacuated the playground and found an appropriate hiding place inside a nearby classroom. She waited there in silence for 45 minutes until the lockdown ended.  

When asked how she was able to respond so well, she told her teacher that she related the situation to a character in a story that the class read. They read this story as part of a school safety curriculum that involved storytelling and trauma-informed practices to teach students before emergencies.  

Join Raptor and Safe Kids Inc. in Keeping All Students Safe

Raptor has partnered with Safe Kids Inc. to provide Raptor customers with a no-cost, 1-school year subscription to the Safe Kids Inc. H.E.R.O. training curriculum that has simple, easy-to-remember, and truly effective strategies. Vetted by parents, teachers, and psychologists, the program includes a student accessibility guide for students with special needs.   

Schools can practice the H.E.R.O. Program with help from Raptor Drill Manager, which enables schools to schedule drills and track compliance; quickly verify each building’s drill activity; and analyze reports to see what is working and where they need to improve performance.  

Get started on your free subscription and learn more here.