Top tips for keeping your autistic child safe in public play spaces

Whilst the playground is an important context for social development and whilst it can facilitate social play and peer interaction in a natural and fun space – there are many hidden dangers on the playground when it comes to Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Before I continue I need to clarify that there is a spectrum of severity when it comes to Autism. Not all children diagnosed with the disorder will have the same challenges or level of challenges.

It is however common knowledge that most playgrounds are not specifically designed for the autistic child –  so it remains the responsibility of us as parents and teachers alike to be aware of the dangers:

Let’s look at a few:

  • Not all children with autism have spatial geometry challenges but those that do get hurt when manoeuvring equipment on the playground.  Low lying trees and branches can also be a huge danger not just from a physical “poke your eye out” perspective but from a climbing and falling out perspective;
  • Not all children with autism have depth perception problems but again those that do can bump into items or hurt themselves because they don’t see depth the way we do;
  • Whilst a majority of Autists struggle with sensory integration not all  autistic children are hyper-responsive to sensory input (meaning not all overreact) some are in fact hypo-responsive meaning they under-react and on a playground both of these can become quite dangerous for the child;
  • Playgrounds need to be fences because many children will run (have a need to flee) from over-stimulation so make sure that the child with autism has proper identification in case he or she escapes or manages to run away;
  • Texture on the ground and colours can affect our children so be mindful and know what your child’s specific challenges are;
  • Shoes are a big safety issue on playgrounds.  Parents need to pay attention to what shoes they have put on their children’s feet.  An autistic child will not know that it can be dangerous to run or climb whilst wearing flip-flops;
  • Swings are another very dangerous element on every playground.  Because our children struggle with general- and depth perception a child with autism will not see the danger in walking in front or behind a swing that is being used by another child;
  • Jungle gyms without railings or that have towers have caused many ER visits and a child with autism should never be allowed on them unsupervised;
  • Children with autism battle with “where their body is in space” so crawling through tunnels is a great activity but it can cause problems if the child gets stuck or anxious when inside;
  • Low muscle tone can also become challenging when a child is on a playground where climbing walls, slides and towers were not designed specifically to take these development challenges in mind.

In closing I have to give the “trampoline” the floor – because jumping poses a high risk of injury and autistic children love to jump!  It is not just the sprains and fractures of arms and legs that you should be worried about but also more serious spinal and head or neck injuries can occur.  

So please – if you are allowing your child to jump on a trampoline take note of the following:

  • Make sure that the trampoline always has a safety net and pads on the springs;
  • Make sure the trampoline is at ground level as a fall from a higher level increases the risk and severity of the injury;
  • Discourage potentially dangerously high jumping, jumping close to the nets and somersaults and never let your child jump unsupervised!
Ilse Kilian-Ross

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private adhd school, autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 - 6 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum.