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Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach.
When it comes to leaving your child alone at home for a short period, age means nothing, while the child’s abilities and maturity mean much more. But for children with Autism, the question of whether you can leave your child alone at home for a short time becomes ever more important because of several health and safety risks.
You can leave an Autistic child alone at home if they can handle minor emergencies, know how to call the authorities if something happens, and feel comfortable being alone for a few minutes. You need to evaluate your child’s abilities to see how ready they are to stay alone.
It is rarely easy to determine if and when your child is mature enough to stay home alone, even if it is for a few minutes. Read on to learn how to determine if your child should stay home alone.
What Are the Abilities of Your Child?
Autism does not present the same in every child, so people refer to it as the Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. Some children have severe signs and traits, while others have mild to moderate characteristics. Those with more severe signs and traits of Autism may have more difficulty being alone for a few minutes and will most likely not handle being alone at home.
However, those with mild to moderate Autism characteristics might be alone at home for a short time if you prepare them for any event or emergency that could happen while you’re gone. But first, you must evaluate them to see if they are capable of staying home by themselves for a short period.
If your child meets the following abilities, then they may be ready to stay home on their own for a while.
Are They Verbal?
While being non-verbal is not an automatic disqualifier for a child with Autism to stay home alone for a bit, it somewhat complicates things. Say they need to call the fire department or the police. What would they do? Of course, there are ways around which deaf people use, but they usually involve reading and writing. If your child can read and write, they could stay home alone for a while.
However, if they aren’t able to read, write, or speak, it’s not a very wise idea to leave them alone at home, even for a few minutes.
Are They Somewhat Independent?
Being able to get dressed by themselves or using the bathroom on their own is a good indication that they could spend some time alone at home. They should be able to eat independently and entertain themselves without harming themselves or the house.
Have you gone for a quick walk around the block on your own? When you came back home, were they doing the same thing they were when you left? Or was there complete chaos?
The answer to that question will determine your next steps. Being independent also means that they can do their own thing without getting into trouble or destroying the house. It also means that they stay safe inside the house while you’re gone.
If they can’t do that much, then it might be too soon to consider leaving them home alone for a while.
Can They Follow Instructions?
Simple instructions, such as “make your bed,” “brush your teeth,” or “take out the trash” are important milestones that a child with Autism should be able to follow if they are to stay at home alone for a short time.
Following instructions shows a level of maturity that means they are ready to stay alone. If they need to call you or any emergency personnel, they need to precisely follow the authorities’ instructions.
Not only do they need to follow instructions in the event of an emergency, but they need to follow instructions that you give them about your safety plan. Options for a plan might include:
- They must not open the door for strangers.
- They are not allowed to cook on the stove without supervision.
- They must answer phone calls from you when you check in with them.
- They need to keep to their predetermined activities until you get back home.
- Any other rules that are unique to your situation.
If they cannot follow your instructions or rules very well, then it might not be time yet to leave them alone at home.
Not Every Child on the Autism Spectrum Disorder Develops at the Same Level
With neurotypical children, staying home alone for an hour or two is about 12 years. At this age, most children have developed enough skills and independence to understand what to do in a crisis, and how to use the phone, should they need to.
Most children at this age have smartphones and know how to use them. Children, however, do not develop at the same rate. Even non-autistic children don’t always meet the criteria for staying home alone.
But chronological age is not an indicator of whether or not a child on the ASD is ready to stay home by themselves. On the Autism spectrum, children develop at different rates as well, and what one child with Autism can do, another child with Autism can’t do.
For example, say one child can read, write, and do well in a conventional school. They have no issues with taking care of their physical needs and don’t need as much supervision as another child on the ASD. They might even be able to get a job with a little job coaching. They would be able to stay home alone occasionally.
Another child with Autism might be non-verbal and need assistance with their physical needs. They also might have difficulties in school or following instructions. Unsupervised, they might end up in the street, seeking sensory input from car lights. Or, they might do other things that might be dangerous. It would be detrimental for them to stay home alone for any amount of time.
Staying home alone may not be possible for one child with Autism, but it would be entirely possible for another. It all depends on how developed they are, mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially. Only you know how prepared your child is to stay at home alone.
Signs Your Child Is Ready to Stay Home Alone
There is a story of a mom whose son asked to stay home when she took her daughter to school in the morning. He wanted to sleep late, rather than have to get up with the rest of the family. After many years of caring for them and keeping them safe, the mom was shocked because she realized that he must grow up eventually.
She recounted how much independence he was showing lately and realized that he would more than likely be okay for a short time. But, as she pointed out, all children must outgrow their parents and live their own lives on their own, as much as possible.
Parents will know when their Autistic child is ready to stay home alone for a while or not, based on the following readiness signs. If your child is not to this stage yet, don’t worry–these are things you can work on with them. But if your child will not get to this stage, then you may not want to leave them alone for any amount of time.
Your Child Knows How to Call Authorities if Something Happens
While you can leave phone numbers for local authorities and emergency personnel on the counter or fridge, your child must demonstrate that they know the proper procedures for calling them. Show them what to say and how to listen to instructions by conducting a mock phone call.
However, if your child still struggles with speaking with people on their own, they might not be ready to stay home alone for any amount of time.
Your Child Can Handle Minor Emergencies
How does your child react when they get a scratch or minor cut? If they can take care of their cuts or scratches by themselves and don’t get upset about it, they can most likely handle minor emergencies. Go over a safety plan with your child, outlining what they should do in the case of a fire or strangers coming to the door.
If your child can do these things on their own under your supervision, then they will most likely be able to do those things on their own while you’re out.
Your Child Knows How to Prepare Their Food
Can your child prepare simple meals and know how to use the microwave? Can they use the stove for cooking simple things, like eggs? If so, they might be ready to stay on their own at home. However, this sign is not as important as the other signs, as they could eat with you before leaving. Or, you could prepare some food or snack for them before you go.
Your Child Feels Comfortable Being Alone for a Short Time
When your child asks to stay home for a while, that shows that they are ready to handle short bursts of alone time and are comfortable with its idea. While you might not be able to let it happen just yet, this may be the time to start talking with your child about a safety plan and how to handle anything that comes up.
Consider Your Child’s Age in Chronological Years vs. Mental Years
Chronological age means how many years since the child was born. For neurotypical children who develop at around the same time, abilities are generally judged by age. However, the chronological age for children with Autism doesn’t always mean that they meet typical age standards.
This means for your child that just because they are at the same age as most children who start staying home on their own doesn’t mean that your child will be ready at that age. If your child meets the standards that most 8-year olds meet, they may not be prepared to stay home alone.
But if your child, who at 13 years old, meets a typical 13-year old standard, they might stay home alone for a short time.
Think About Your Child’s Behaviors Before Letting Them Stay by Themselves
When you think about your child’s behaviors, this does not have to mean negative behaviors only. A child can have positive behaviors, yet not be ready to stay at home by themselves. They might be able to follow instructions or take care of their hygiene needs, but they may make a habit of going outside in the street without a thought about the cars.
While they may be able to prepare their food, they might be prone to eating other dangerous things and need supervision.
Autistic children often work at behaving correctly, yet they do dangerous things because of their cognitive differences. If your child has challenging behaviors that are not necessarily negative, yet are hazardous, your child might not be able to stay home alone just yet. If this changes later as they grow up more, then you might try leaving them at home alone for 20 minutes to see how they do.
Create a Safety Plan
Before leaving a child on their own, even for 30 minutes, you need to create a safety plan with them to know what to do should the need arise. The plan should include how to avoid fires or how to manage a fire should it break out. It should consist of when to open the door for someone, and when not to open it.
Your child should be comfortable calling you, no matter what happens. You’re there to make sure they stay safe, and if they need you, they should call you regardless of what is going on.
Alert Your Neighbors Before Leaving
If you get along with your neighbors and are on good terms with them, let them know when you go out so they can keep an eye on things in your house. Get their phone number so you can leave it with the other emergency phone numbers in case your child needs someone quickly. Create a plan with your neighbor and your child to know what is expected should something happen.
Your child needs to understand who they can go to if something happens, and if that’s your neighbor, then make that known in no uncertain terms. If it’s not your neighbor, then find someone else who can help your child if something happens.
Show Your Child How to Put Out Fires
While you may think this next step is a metaphor for other crises like fights, this step is literal. Your child must understand the basics of putting out a fire should one happen or call for help if it gets out of hand.
Unless you have a fire pit in your backyard, you probably shouldn’t start a fire to show your child how to put it out. Find a few videos online that show how to put out simple fires, such as those that start in the kitchen. Talk about each video afterward to ensure your child understands the concepts presented.
Search for charts or instructions made for children that outlines how to stay safe with fires. You can go over these with your child and create a fire safety plan unique to your home rules and child’s comprehension level. Go over your child’s steps if there is a fire, including calling the fire department.
Part of teaching your child how to put out a fire includes teaching how to avoid a fire in the first place. Tell them the following points:
- Show them safe cooking techniques if they are up to that level of independence.
- Tell them to stay away from outlets to avoid electrical fires.
- Matches and lighters are not toys to play with.
- Candles are off-limits for most children with Autism, at least while you’re away.
Should your child need to call the fire department, make sure they know how to get out of the house before they call. It might be wise to program their phone with emergency numbers, as well as your number and other people nearby that can help in the event of a fire.
Create a Contact List and Show Your Child How to Use It
More than likely, if your child can stay at home on their own, they will have a smartphone. Put the numbers of people they can call on their phone. However, if you still have a landline phone, create a contact list that contains numbers for the fire and police departments, the hospital, and trusted family and friends.
A child with Autism might not understand the difference between a real emergency and a perceived emergency. They need to be taught the difference, but if they don’t get the slight nuances between the two, make it a rule that they must call you, a family friend, and a family member to ask advice.
The contact list assumes that your child knows how to make phone calls, as pointed out earlier in this article. If they don’t know how to make a phone call, your child is not ready to stay at home alone.
Establish a Working Relationship With Police and Medical Personnel
If you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and you’re on a first-name basis with the police and EMTs, you already have a working relationship with them. They know you and your child and are aware of the issues you might have.
However, if you live in a larger town or city, it’s not easy to establish a working relationship with police or medical personnel. But if you have a child with Autism, you will at least have a network of professionals that you or your child could call if there are any problems.
Make Sure Your Child Is Comfortable Calling You
There will be times that your child makes mistakes that could potentially turn dangerous. Whether or not they can call you depends on how comfortable they are telling you what happened. Of course, you want them to feel comfortable with getting you when they need to. But, they may have anxiety admitting to what they did and don’t want to anger you.
If your child is like this, take some extra time to talk with your child about what could happen if they don’t call you when something dangerous happens. They could become seriously injured or die due to the circumstances.
Know When to Open the Door for Guests
A child with Autism may not understand who to talk with and who to avoid. Being home alone presents a challenge if someone should come to the door. Should your child open the door or ignore the visitor? It depends on a few factors:
- Does your child know the visitor? Is the visitor a family member or a trusted friend? Your child should know who to trust, even with your family and friends.
- Is the visitor someone that is there to complete a service? Your child should know what to do in that case. You can tell your child to ask them to come back when you’re home, or you can have your child ignore the door.
- Is the person someone utterly unknown to you or your child? Then common sense should tell you that your child should ignore the person at the door.
What if Something Happens When You’re Away?
A parent’s worst fear is that something should happen to their child(ren) when they are not home. That fear can be magnified when your child has Autism, and you’re not sure they can handle being alone at home for any length of time. If you’ve set up a safety plan and your family or friends know when you’re away, that can minimize anything happening while you’re gone.
However, even the best-laid plans can go wrong. Your child might want to cook an egg or make a meal using the oven. A grease fire breaks out and, thinking that water is the way to put out a fire, throws water. The fire gets out of control, and soon your house is burned down.
Granted, that’s the worst-case scenario, and in most cases, your child would know enough to put a lid on a grease fire. Or at least know to call the fire department.
But what would you do?
The point of this is to help you realize that you need to create a contingency plan for anything that could go wrong, even though you prepare your child for every event that could happen. Of course, your plans need to be a solution to your unique situation and the level of your child’s abilities.
It’s never pleasant to think that the worst thing could happen, but things go wrong even with neurotypical children. What are you going to do in case it does?
What if You Can Never Leave Your Child Alone at Home?
As a parent, you look forward to the day your child grows up and makes their way in life. When they are born, you picture them getting married and having children of their own.
But what if that doesn’t happen? What if your child grows up and cannot ever be on their own? They then “age out” of the care system, and it becomes a problem for parents to know what to do to continue care for their adult child.
More to the point, what if you can never leave your child alone at home, even when they’re an adult? Some children with Autism have it so severe that they cannot be unattended, even for a few minutes. If this describes your child, you might never be able to leave them alone at home. In that case, you may want to check out respite care services in your area.
Respite care offers relief care for parents to go to the store, doctor’s appointments, or even out to eat for the evening. If your child indeed cannot stay at home alone for any amount of time, then respite care might be a good option for your child.
It is rarely easy to decide when and if your child can stay home alone for any time, especially if they have Autism. With the way the world is changing and how schools are going to a virtual learning format, the question becomes even more critical–when can you leave your child alone at home, and how will they handle school on their own if you need to go for a quick errand?
When kids can care for themselves independently and do not need constant supervision, they can handle being alone for a short time. But only you will know when that is, so trust your instincts, and consult a professional if you need further guidance.
Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism whilst studying for a BA in Theatre, Education, and Deaf Studies.
Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training, and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise within Autism & LD.
Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support, and training employers to become disability confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with the end goal of work readiness and employment. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and employment, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.
- Child Mind Institute: Aging Out: When Kids With Autism Grow Up
- Autism Society: Safety in the Home
- HuffPost: Home Alone With Autism
- Teen Autism: Staying Home Alone
- The New York Jewish Week: Home Alone: Autism and the Not-Empty Nest
- Safety: Keeping Your Child With Autism Safe
- Connecticut Children’s: Leaving Your Child Home Alone? Here’s How to Keep Them Safe
- YouTube: How to Safely Put Out a Kitchen Fire
- NFPA: Stop, Drop, and Roll Handout
- Before the Fire: Fire Safety Lessons for PreK-8