Originally published by Michele Gay on LinkedIn

Blog hero image containing the blog title, the Safe and Sound logo, and a stock image of a rainbow heart for autism awareness.

By: Michele Gay 

At Safe and Sound Schools, we are deeply connected to the importance of fostering inclusive environments where every individual feels valued and supported.

As I have shared before, my daughter, Josephine “Joey” Grace Gay, was an extraordinary child in so many ways. Her amazing energy, beautiful smile and kind spirit made her loved by all who knew her. Joey also had many “special needs” as a student with autism, apraxia of speech, gross motor and visual impairments, and other developmental disorders. We like to say that she was “especially special.”

From the moment Safe and Sound Schools was founded, it was my dream to honor Joey and address the safety needs of our “especially special” kids. Through the development of our Especially Safe® program, we have made a significant impact on this goal. Joey continues to shine bright through our efforts, and we’re able to help schools and districts with inclusive safety planning that considers the needs of all student populations–from developmental disabilities to communication challenges, medical needs to mobility challenges, and beyond.

In addition to my own personal connection to this work, I am proud to be surrounded by others who are inspired by personal experiences with autism in their families. It brings me great joy to share this meaningful Q&A with our Senior Director of Violence Prevention Research and Programs, Dr. Frank Straub, and Event Support Specialist, Susan Parziale.

As World Autism Month comes to an end, we truly hope you take these insights with you and keep the inclusive school safety conversation going through every month of the year.

Here are a few places we’ll be cultivating ongoing dialogue next month. Be sure to join us!

Q&A: Dr. Frank Straub and Susan Parziale on Autism Awareness, Acceptance, and Safety for All

Q: Why is the month of April meaningful to you?

Dr. Frank Straub: World Autism Awareness Day and World Autism Month hold special significance for my wife and me because our daughter is on the autism spectrum. These observances are crucial for raising awareness about autism and highlighting the valuable contributions individuals on the spectrum bring to our lives daily. It’s essential to acknowledge the unique challenges associated with autism, but more importantly, to celebrate the power of neurodiversity.

Susan Parziale: April’s recognition of autism holds personal meaning for me because of my daughter, Jenna. Since 2013, I’ve been sharing a daily autism fact on social media throughout April to help educate my friends and followers. I actively encourage questions and comments because without understanding autism, true awareness and acceptance remain elusive.

Q: What are common safety concerns or challenges experienced by those with autism in school environments?

Dr. Frank Straub: It is important to note: if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. Autism affects and presents uniquely in each individual, not only in their profile of strengths and challenges, but also in the way autism plays out among their unique experiences, personality, temperament, and environment.

However, there are several facets of autism that may shape the behavior of autistic students. These facets are important to recognize and explore because of their impact on individual behavior and safety concerns/challenges in school environments: circumscribed interests; vivid fantasy and impaired social imagination; need for order, rules, rituals, routine and predictability; obsessionality, repetition and collecting; social interaction and communication difficulties; cognitive styles; and sensory processing. The extent to which each of these facets are present in a given student should be carefully considered in safety planning and in response to challenging or concerning behavior.

Susan Parziale: Individuals with autism may face challenges in school environments such as sensory overload and anxiety triggered by loud noises and crowded spaces. Difficulty expressing needs or understanding instructions can hinder their ability to seek help or communicate during emergencies. Additionally, some individuals with autism may wander away from safe areas or supervision, increasing their risk of getting lost or encountering dangerous situations.

Q: How can schools better educate staff, students, and parents about autism to foster understanding and support during all types of safety drills and real-life emergencies?

Dr. Frank Straub: It is very important that schools understand the unique strengths and challenges of autism and share the information with staff, students, and parents. Administrators, teachers, staff, school resource officers, mental health professionals, and other members of the school community should be aware of students with intellectual and developmental challenges and design physical security systems, crisis response policies and procedures, behavioral threat assessment practices, and other supports with the unique needs of these students in mind.

Additionally, I think it is really important that autistic students, like every other student, are recognized for who they are, and that we celebrate them as the persons they are. Our daughter, for example, has shared the fact that she is autistic with her classmates, teachers, and school staff. She believes this is important so they understand her approach to life, her behavior, her strengths and challenges. This has helped her get the support she needs from the school community and created opportunities for her classmates to better understand who she is and why she sometimes acts in a unique manner.

Susan Parziale: Schools can create strategies and opportunities to educate staff, students, and caregivers about autism to develop understanding and support during safety drills and real-life emergencies. Some that I have seen deployed are: organizing workshops and informational sessions for parents and caregivers that provide insights into autism and how it may affect learning and safety, developing individualized safety plans directly into IEPs that are tailored to their specific needs, providing practice drills at school/home and using visual supports and social stories as aids to assist students with autism that are nonverbal, and welcoming feedback for areas that work well or need improvement.

Q: How can schools collaborate with autism communities and organizations to develop and implement more inclusive safety measures and practices?

Dr. Frank Straub: As both the parent of an autistic daughter and a professional who works to promote safe and secure school environments, I think it is critical to engage the student, their caregivers, and advocacy organizations in developing and implementing school cultures that recognize, celebrate and support all students. It is also important that we give careful consideration to the unique challenges that autism may pose for students and that we take the aforementioned behavioral facets into consideration as we develop and implement school safety and security practices.

Susan Parziale: Partnering with autism organizations to provide training and professional development opportunities for school staff can enhance their understanding of autism and equip them with effective strategies for supporting students with diverse needs during safety drills and emergencies. Schools can leverage the resources and materials developed by autism organizations, such as visual supports, social stories, and communication tools, to enhance the accessibility and effectiveness of safety protocols for students with autism. These resources can be adapted and integrated into existing safety procedures.

Additionally, collaborating with autism communities and organizations can facilitate community-wide initiatives aimed at promoting safety and inclusion for individuals with autism. This may involve organizing workshops, seminars, or awareness campaigns to raise awareness and adopt understanding among students, families, and community members. Overall, collaboration between schools and autism communities and organizations is essential for developing and implementing inclusive safety measures that prioritize the needs and experiences of students with autism, ultimately creating safer and more supportive learning environments for all students.

With love and light,

Michele Gay

Co-Founder and Executive Director

Safe and Sound Schools

Safe and Sound Schools’ Especially Safe® program is available to download for free. Learn more about how you can plan and prepare, and teach and train to meet the special needs of students, staff, and visitors in your school community here.