Kitchen Safety for Families with Autistic Children

Kitchen Safety Autistic Children

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day, and the entire month of April is dedicated to autism awareness. It has been said that around 1 in 100 people is autistic, which means millions of people around the globe are affected by this disorder to varying degrees.

According to a recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder. This is up 30% from 2012, due to increased awareness, improved diagnostic criteria, and attentiveness by parents, teachers, and medical professionals alike. Those with autism are predominantly male, as the CDC report estimates 1 in 42 boys is autistic, compared to 1 in 189 girls.

Because the definition of autism has been broadened, these cases range in severity. Many may be mild, as with those who have Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism, but other cases may pose quite the challenge for caring parents and family members across the country.

Read on for a brief description of what characterizes autism, as well as our suggestions for laying out and furnishing your kitchen with an autistic child, and some tips to consider for mealtime.

What is Autism?

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Autism spectrum disorders are complex disorders of brain development that alter how nerve cells and synapses connect and organize. The primary symptoms are difficulties in interaction and social responsiveness, difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. These behaviors are things such as restricted interests, repetitive movements, compulsions, ritualistic behaviors, and inflexible adherence to routines.

Other symptoms that are commonly associated with autism include deficits in motor coordination, sensory abnormalities, sleep issues, depression, anxiety, and atypical eating. They may not occur in every case, and these symptoms alone do not constitute a diagnosis of autism.

The spectrum of autistic behavior is continuous, with cases ranging from low to severe impairment. Thus, the diagnostic categories are somewhat arbitrary. Each autistic person may experience these symptoms to differing degrees, and no two cases are identical. While a substantial percentage of those with autism require hands-on support and assistant for the entirety of their lives, many others are able to live independently in adulthood, earn college degrees, start their own families, and successfully find employment.

Why is This Important?

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Autistic children deserve to live in an environment that is safe and comfortable. They process the world around them in a way that is outside the norm, and accommodations should be made so they are not injured or overwhelmed.

Properly outfitting a home for autistic children requires a lot of attention in order to keep their natural curiosity and impulses from causing them harm. Your entire house should provide a safe environment, but the kitchen in particular should be tackled with much consideration, as it hosts all kinds of potential dangers.

There are several areas in your kitchen that you should tackle, such as layout, appliances, and proper storage. Certain solutions can also help considerably during meals.

The Basics

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Invest in durability. If your child is prone to tantrums, aggressive outbursts, or exploratory behavior, this would be a wise choice for anything that appears in your kitchen. Consider options such as a cast iron sink or laminate countertops. Windows can be replaced with plexiglass, Lexan, tempered glass, or other alternatives.

Arrange the kitchen furniture in a way that makes sense. This can mean a number of different things. For example, if your child will be doing seated activities, there should be a clear surface and appropriate chair for them to use. It is also good to keep surfaces free of clutter if your child is a sweeper. Rearrange your furniture and move it away from shelves or other things that can be climbed.

If your child is a wanderer, limit access to entrances and exits. Ideally, there should be only one entrance to the kitchen that you should carefully monitor. If your child frequently runs out of the room on a predictable path, then change the layout so it is not conducive to their escape. Keep any doors closed, and make use of gates or barriers as you would in other rooms of the house.

Label things to explain their function or enforce rules. Experience has shown that images such as a STOP sign or a “NO” label work well. Place these on doors that are not to be opened or things that are not to be touched, such as stove burners or containers that hold hazardous materials. However, this will only truly work if your rules are absolute; many autistic children view the world in very black and white terms. As soon as you make exceptions, this breaks any sort of routine or sameness and will confuse the child.

Kitchen Storage

Kitchen Storage

Photo by Flickr user Orin Zebest.

Lock away cleaning supplies. This will prevent your curious child from hurting themselves or ingesting cleaning solutions. Also, purchase or store liquid cleaners in opaque bottles when possible. This way, their colors will be obscured and your child cannot confuse them with things they like to drink, such as fruit juices.

Secure sharp items you may have in your kitchen. Beyond knives, this can also mean scissors and any other tools you commonly store in your kitchen.

Put away any foods that could pose a problem. For example, fruits with pits such as peaches are a choking hazard. It is also smart to hide away any foods that could aggravate your child's allergies.

Keep lighters or matches locked up. Reaching toward the stove burners isn't the only way your child could potentially burn themselves. Anything that starts a fire should never be left out in the open.

Place items out of reach on shelves or bins. For their childhood, at least, you have the advantage of height on your side, so store items well beyond their grasp.

Store away as much as possible in cupboards or the pantry. Then secure the doors of these places depending on your level of need.

Appliances & Gadgets

Appliances and Gadgets

Photo by Flickr user Ian Watkins.

Use plastic knob covers. These can be fitted onto doors, faucets, ranges, and cooktops. This will prevent opening doors, turning on the sink and wasting water, or the changing of heating settings on your oven or burners.

Buy appliances with safety features. There are numerous major appliances on the market that have been built with kitchen safety in mind. These have features such as child locks or hidden controls. When you find yourself shopping for a new cooktop, range, microwave, or dishwasher, keep these features in mind.

Consider getting an induction cooktop. Induction cooktops are the most safety-conscious choice for your kitchen. Because heating is done by electromagnetic induction, touching the cooktop surface will only warm up your magnetic pots and pans, not your child's fingertips.

Don’t leave small appliances out on countertops. Tuck them away in cabinets when they are not in use. Or you can store things like toasters under covers.

Leave appliances unplugged. Not only is this a good idea for avoiding trouble, but it also adds to the overall energy efficiency of your house.

Make sure the kitchen has a smoke alarm. In case of an emergency, a smoke alarm should be installed in your kitchen so that your local firefighters can be notified immediately when there's a problem.

More Extreme Measures

More Extreme Measures

Photo by Flickr user Steven Taschuk.

Many autistic children relish the challenge of opening normal child locks, as their minds can be very adept at problem-solving. You should figure that if you can open something with ease, so can your child. In addition, things like plastic electrical outlet covers work well in some cases, but in others they look like an invitation to come play.

To remedy these issues, simple padlocks can be placed on things like outlets or even the refrigerator door. Magnet locks can be installed in the doors of cupboards and cabinets that can keep your child from prying them open or outsmarting the locking mechanism.

These ideas may sound extreme, but if your child is highly intelligent and other solutions have failed in the past, they should be implemented for your child's protection.

Mealtime

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Consistency is key. Autistic children work within routines; this is how they understand and make sense of the world. Thus, you should strive for regularity. For example, have them sit in the same chair for each meal. Do not change where they sit or what they sit on without warning, because something you could easily adapt to is something that could be overwhelming for them.

Make sure there is proper seating. Their chair should be located against the wall or in a corner if they are a wanderer so they cannot dart away.

Chairs with arms can help prevent behavioral problems. If your child struggles with aggression, this type of seating will impede knocking over furniture or throwing objects. It will also help stress good posture and facilitate appropriate eating behaviors.

Tie utensils to the chair or table leg with nylon string. Someone could easily be injured if your child decides to hurl their fork across the room. If this doesn’t seem like the best solution, or if the utensils have a way of boomeranging back at your child, replace them with hard plastic utensils.

Attach dishes to the table. If your child has a tendency of sweeping things off of surfaces, secure any plates, bowls, or cups with Velcro. You could also consider replacing glass dishes with those made of plastic or rubber to prevent breaking.

Additional Resources

CDC Autism Page - The main page for Autism Spectrum Disorder resources provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Read about screenings, data, research, statistics, and more. There are also links to news articles and tons of free materials available.

Safe Signals – Safe Signals produced a home safety workbook, a 20-minute safety tips video, and vinyl clings with reminders that can be placed around the house. These things are designed to help older teens and young adults that want to live on their own by reinforcing safety messages.

Don't Mourn for Us - The moving speech given by Jim Sinclair, an autistic man who was non-verbal until the age of 12. It grants key insight as to how to better nurture, interact with, and care for your autistic child.

This is Autism Flash Blog - On November 18, 2013, hundreds of people submitted their stories, poetry, videos, photos, and more to this blog project, in an effort to combat the misconception that autism is something that brings nothing more than suffering and hardship.

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