The Challenge of Keeping My Impulsive and Hyperfocused Son Safe
When our family moved to a small suburb of Portland, Maine, two years ago, my 6-year-old son asked if we could explore our new neighborhood on our bikes. My son has
autism, and he can be quite
impulsive, so I was nervous about taking him out in an unfamiliar area. But I agreed.
As we made our way down the side streets, we were passed by a pickup truck. “Daddy, look! That truck is an F-350 Super Duty!” my son excitedly said. He’s obsessed with trucks and loves pointing out the makes and models. He was so
hyperfocused on the truck traveling away from us that he didn’t see a pothole near the curb in front of him.
I called out to him several times, each time louder. “Stop!” I said, “Look out for the hole!” But he didn’t hear me, even though I was only a few feet behind. He was in his own head, watching the truck and making engine noises of his own. He hit the pothole and went down hard.
Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt. And after dusting himself off, he was ready to ride again. But a little way down the road, an older man fixing a car told him that he liked his helmet. My son stopped and told the man, “My name is Benjamin, and we just moved to this neighborhood.” And before I could stop him, he blurted out our new street address.
These are just a few of the ways my son makes my wife and me worry about his safety. We worry he might get hurt because he’s curious and doesn’t stop and think before exploring a new place or trying a new activity. He gets so caught up in things that interest him that he doesn’t notice potential danger in his surroundings.
It’s easy to tie myself in knots thinking of the worst things that could happen to him. One route would be to shelter him, keep him inside all day and protect him from the world. But we want him to be a regular kid, and to do things any kid his age does. We don’t want to let our worries limit his world and keep him from all the experiences he should have.
That’s why, while facing our own insecurities, we’ve tried to put strategies in place to help him stay safe.
For instance, as part of his love of trucks, my son can’t resist checking out license plates in parking lots. He may stop to look at a plate he likes, while not realizing that the car it belongs to is backing out of its space.
Our strategy in these situations is to always remind him of what we’re doing right now, and what we’re planning to do. We use phrases like, “We are going to the car now, so you need to stay with me and watch out for cars.” We check in with him while we go to keep his focus, “Are you right with me? Good job watching out. Good eyes!”
Honest, specific praise really seems to encourage him.
Another safety concern is that my son is very social and trusting. He loves to talk to people and over-share information about himself. Here, our strategy is having conversations with him about “
stranger danger.” My wife and I have told him about “sneaky people” who may seem friendly and harmless, but who may want to take advantage of him or hurt him.
If these strategies seem very specific, it’s because each situation is unique for him. Each needs a unique solution. When I’m with my son, I feel confident that I can come up with a strategy or solution to keep him safe. You could say that I’m hyperfocused on his being hyperfocused.
When he’s out of our sight, however, it’s trickier. We can’t always be right by his side, warning him about the potholes. Nor can we always trust someone else to watch him.
Like all parents, we want our child to develop strategies he can call up and use to navigate life on his own. For my wife and me, it comes down to teaching our son every day to be intentional and mindful of his safety.
It’s a slow process and takes a lot of practice. And whether it’s telling him to focus on what’s happening right now, or talking to him about stranger danger, we always have one eye on the future. The tween and teen years aren’t so far away, and he’ll need to be prepared.
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