How to Make Your Home Safe for Children with Challenging Behaviours

If you have a child or teen with autism who engages in aggressive or self-harming behaviours, safety is a constant concern. Fortunately, there are a few proactive changes and preventive strategies that you can use to make your home a safer space for your whole family. Some families experiencing challenging behaviours may also benefit from our Urgent Response Services.

Here are some tips to help you get started.

  1. Put away dangerous items: Lock up sharp objects like scissors or knives or place them high up, out of reach, for example, in a cabinet that your child can’t access.
  2. Hide medication: Place all medication out of sight and out of reach. If your child or teen can reach these items, they may take the medication even if you have told them not to.
  3. Designate a safe space for your child: Find a location in the home where your child can go to calm down before their behaviour reaches a crisis point. This space should be clutter-free and should not contain furniture with sharp corners. You may consider placing a pillow in the space that your child can use to safely take out any frustrations. Be sure the space does not contain items that can be thrown or broken.
  4. Designate a safe space for other family members: While it’s natural to want to be there to support your child, this must be balanced with the need to keep everyone safe. This is why it’s a good idea to find a location in the home (such as a bedroom or a bathroom) where other family members can go if their safety is at risk.
  5. Reduce clutter: An organized home that doesn’t contain too many loose items lying around is a safer space for a child whose behaviour may become aggressive or who may self-harm.
  6. Beware of hard surfaces: For children who engage in self-injurious behaviour that involves banging their head, place padding on the edges and corners of tables. A designated child space in the home should also be free of any hard surfaces or loose items – for example, instead of a sofa with an armrest, place a soft beanbag chair in the room.
  7. Place extra locks on doors: If a child’s escalating behaviour leads to runaway attempts, be sure to keep doors locked at all times and place extra locks on doors. You may also want to consider motion sensors that will indicate when a child has left the home.
  8. Consider visuals: For some children with autism, visuals may be helpful as a preventive measure. You may consider placing a picture of a stop sign in front of a door if a child runs away when their behaviour escalates. Another idea is to place a picture of a flame near your stove so your child has a visual reminder that the stove can become very hot.
  9. Create a vulnerable person profile: Consider having a vulnerable person profile created with your local police department. This can be done online by uploading a picture of your child and including information about their diagnosis, skills and needs. The purpose is to make police aware that they should use a different approach with your child if a situation arises where they need to enter the home.
  10. Create a safety plan: This provides you and your family with clear guidelines so you know how to respond to various behaviours to ensure everyone’s safety in the home. A child with autism may start to scream in a specific way before they become aggressive. The safety plan will outline what everyone should do in this situation before the behaviour escalates. For example, an older child may take a younger child to their bedroom and read them a book, while a parent takes the child with autism to the designated safe space where they can calm down. If the behaviour persists or continues to escalate, the safety plan would outline when it’s time to call 911.

When is it time to get help?

If your child’s challenging behaviour escalates to the point where it is threatening the safety of your child, or the safety of other family members, it’s time to get help. While each family situation is different, as soon as you feel unsafe in your own home, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek support by calling 911 or another crisis line.

Here are some tips to help you navigate this situation if it occurs:

  • Be self-aware: Make sure you’re aware of your positioning in the home relative to the space and other objects; ensure you don’t accidentally end up backing yourself into a corner. Never turn your back on your child when their behaviour is escalating.
  • Have a plan: Determine ahead of time the point when you will call 911 or a crisis line. You and other household members may decide it’s time to pick up the phone after the first violent act occurs, or perhaps after more than one violent act, or you may call once a family member is injured.
  • Get everyone on board: Each household will need to determine what makes sense for their family. It is important that all family members are on the same page when it comes to deciding at what point it’s time to call a crisis hotline.

Aside from calling 911, you can also call a mobile crisis team that comes to the home. Youthdale is a Toronto-based mental health care agency that helps children, youth and families dealing with complex needs.

How Surrey Place can help

If you’re a family member or caregiver whose child exhibits high-risk behaviours that require an urgent response, like violent thinking, aggression, or property destruction, you may be eligible for Surrey Place’s Urgent Response Services. Surrey Place’s Urgent Response Services can also help you develop a safety plan for your family. For autism support for needs that are not urgent, please visit Surrey Place’s Autism Services page.

About Urgent Response Services

This resource was written with support from staff in Urgent Response Services. Urgent Response Services are part of the Ontario Autism Program. They were created to support children or youth with an emerging urgent need. Surrey Place leads Urgent Response Services for Toronto Region in partnership with 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, Community Living Toronto, Family Service Toronto, Geneva Centre, Holland Bloorview, Kerry’s Place, Lumenus, SAAAC, SMILE Canada and Strides Toronto.

More on Home Safety

By 2 months

Has your baby had their hearing screened? YES NO

By 6 months

Does the child?

Startle in response to loud noises? YES NO
Turn to where a sound is coming from? YES NO
Make different cries for different needs (hungry, tired)? YES NO
Watch your face as you talk? YES NO
Smile/laugh in response to your smiles and laughs? YES NO
Imitate coughs or other sounds such as ah, eh, buh YES NO

By 9 months

Does the child?

Respond to their name? YES NO
Respond to the telephone ringing or a knock at the door? YES NO
Understand being told no? YES NO
Get what they want through using gestures (reaching to be picked up)? YES NO
Play social games with you (Peek-a-Boo)? YES NO
Enjoy being around people? YES NO
Babble and repeat sounds such as babababa or duhduhduh? YES NO

By 12 months

Does the child?

Follow simple one-step directions (sit down)? YES NO
Look across the room to a toy when adult points at it? YES NO
Consistently use three to five words? YES NO
Use gestures to communicate (waves hi/bye, shakes head for no)? YES NO
Get your attention using sounds, gestures and pointing while looking at your eyes? YES NO
Bring you toys to show you? YES NO
Perform for social attention and praise? YES NO
Combine lots of sounds together as though talking (abada baduh abee)? YES NO
Show an interest in simple picture books? YES NO

By 18 months

Does the child?

Understand the meaning of in and out, off and on? YES NO
Point to more than 2 body parts when asked? YES NO
Use at least 20 words consistently? YES NO
Respond with words or gestures to simple questions (Where's teddy? What's that?)? YES NO
Demonstrate some pretend play with toys (gives teddy bear a drink, pretends a bowl is a hat)? YES NO
Make at least four different consonant sounds (p ,b, m, n, d, g, w, h)? YES NO
Enjoy being read to and sharing simple books with you? YES NO
Point to pictures using one finger? YES NO

By 2 years

Does the child?

Follow two-step directions (Go find your teddy bear and show it to Grandma.)? YES NO
Use 100 to 150 words? YES NO
Use at least two pronouns (you, me, mine)? YES NO
Consistently combine two to four words in short phrases (Daddy hat. Truck go down.)? YES NO
Enjoy being around other children? YES NO
Begin to offer toys to other children and imitate other children's actions and words? YES NO
Use words that are understood by others 50 to 60 per cent of the time? YES NO
Form words or sounds easily and without effort? YES NO
Hold books the right way up and turn the pages? YES NO
Read to stuffed animals or toys? YES NO
Scribble with crayons? YES NO

By 30 months

Does the child?

Understand the concepts of size (big/little) and quantity (a little/a lot, more)? YES NO
Use some adult grammar (two cookies, bird flying, I jumped)? YES NO
Use over 350 words? YES NO
Use action words such as run, spill, fall? YES NO
Participate in some turn-taking activities with peers, using both words and toys? YES NO
Demonstrate concern when another child is hurt or sad? YES NO
Combine several actions in play (puts blocks in the train and drives the train, drops the blocks off.)? YES NO
Put sounds at the beginning of most words? YES NO
Use words with two or more syllables or beats (ba-na-na, com-pu-ter, a-pple)? YES NO
Recognize familiar logos and signs involving print (Stop sign)? YES NO
Remember and understand familiar stories? YES NO

By 3 years

Does the child?

Understand who, what, where and why questions? YES NO
Create long sentences using five to eight words? YES NO
Talk about past events (trip to grandparents house, day at child care)? YES NO
Tell simple stories? YES NO
Show affection for favourite playmates? YES NO
Engage in multi-step pretend play (pretending to cook a meal, repair a car)? YES NO
Talk in a way that most people outside of the family understand what she/he is saying most of the time? YES NO
Have an understanding of the function of print (menus, lists, signs)? YES NO
Show interest in, and awareness of, rhyming words? YES NO
Read to stuffed animals or toys? YES NO
Scribble with crayons? YES NO

By 4 years

Does the child?

Follow directions involving three or more steps (First get some paper, then draw a picture and give it to Mommy)? YES NO
Use adult type grammar? YES NO
Tell stories with a beginning, middle and end? YES NO
Talk to try and solve problems with adults and with other children? YES NO
Show increasingly complex imaginary play? YES NO
Talk in a way that is understood by strangers almost all the time? YES NO
Generate simple rhymes (cat-bat)? YES NO
Match some letters with their sounds (letter b says buh, letter t says tuh)? YES NO