What’s worked for my son with Down syndrome…road safety.

Sometimes when you start out teaching your kids how to do things, you have no idea whether your approach will work or not. That worry can be amplified when your kid has developmental delay as the fruits of your labour can take a long time to ripen. Trying to balance sticking to a method to provide consistency and ditching something that doesn’t work before I have wasted too much time on it used to drive me crazy but as time passes, I am getting better at knowing what works for us and what doesn’t.
So, I thought I would write a little bit about things that have worked for us and why.

I thought I would start with road safety because this was one of the biggest fears I had early on. Like most parents starting this journey I’ve had so many people delight in giving me all the horror stories of uncontrollable kids or near death experiences as their kids belt out into oncoming traffic. This terrified me. What if I was never able to teach him to be safe near a road? What if he wrestled out of my grip suddenly one day and threw himself under a truck?


I decided early on that I would try to teach him some road sense in the hope that he would learn to walk with me safely and listen to my instructions…and I decided to start from the moment he could walk. Partly because the earlier I started the better, but also because he would be pretty slow and I could catch him easily if I had to!

So here is a list of things I did that have actually worked.
“This way Wade…”
We started this at the supermarket. I’ve written about it before but a lot has changed since then so it is nice to look back and see if this method worked. I allocated extra time at the beginning of my shopping trip to try to get him to follow me as I walked along the mall type area. This worked because it was wide and safe. There were no cars and he could see where we were headed.
I would walk ahead a couple of steps then give him a chance to follow me. If he strayed off or lost focus, I squatted down at eye level and pointed towards where we were headed and said “This way, Wade. This way…” Then I would walk a couple of steps again and repeat, repeat, repeat until he got it. Once he followed me, I would make a big deal of it and say “Yay! You’ve got it. Good walking Wade!”… or something along those lines.

Make the walk interesting.
When I started teaching him to walk along a footpath in front of a row of shops I tried to make it fun or interesting. Sometimes I would do silly steps or shuffle along in a zig-zag pattern or anything silly to keep his focus on me and make it in his interest to follow me. If I was holding his hand we might change from long drawn out steps to tiny little shuffly ones. Jumping over cracks in the pavement was a good one too! Or I would go a few steps ahead to something interesting in a shop window and encourage him to come and see. It wasn’t always successful but over time he has continuously stayed with me and now walks from the car to the shop with me…yes, sometimes it takes an extraordinary amount of time because he has to stop at every single shop and pop his head in to say hi or high-five the owners… or wipe his fingers along filthy tiles…or run up to dogs…or point at toys…or….or…but he’s not running onto the road so I’m calling it a win!


Leave the pram in the car
Recently I have stopped taking the pram out with us. He doesn’t really like being in it and only wants to walk anyway so I have taken to leaving it behind. It means I have to spend more time shopping and there have been times when it has been an unmitigated disaster…like the other day when I tried to buy a large rug with a toddler in tow….with no pram….and no patience…after a really crappy week which resulted in me having a panic attack in the shopping centre…but where was I?
Oh, yes.
Look, it’s probably not possible every time but if I can, I do it. It is just another reinforcement of what I expect from him and it is another opportunity for him to learn to follow me and go where I go. Also, being out of the pram gives him lots more stimulation and chances to interact with people. He gets to learn what he can touch and what he can’t. He wanders up to people to say hi and wants to give the money at Every. Single. Place. We. Go…. But the more I do it, the easier it gets.
…oh, and a side note to all those retailers out there….I am not neglecting to parent my son when he pulls all the chocolates and toys off the shelves at the checkout…it’s just that if you insist on targeting children by putting a pile of chocolates and toys at eye level while I am trying to pay then I will assume it is a toy box and he is free to play…(two can play that game!)

Hands on the car.
So, while most of the time Wade has been good staying with me at the shopping centre, both of us can be a bit ratty and over it by the time we get to the car. If I have my arms full of bags and he decides not to listen while I am fumbling for my keys it can be really dangerous in the car park. So a while ago I started making him put his hands on the car until I have found my keys and opened the door. I started doing it when I didn’t have my hands full so that when we approached the car, I would place his hands on the door and say “Hands on the car, Wade”. I made a point of doing it every time we approached the car and after no time at all, it started working. Now, if I have my hands full and I’m trying to get my keys or free up my hands to get into the car, I say “Hands on the car, Wade” and usually he stands there trying to open the door handle. It’s useful too if I need to reach back into the car for something after I have got him out too. I’ll never rely on it 100% and I will always presume he will run and be ready for that, but so far, this method is working!

“Any cars this way?”
We have recently moved house and our old street was really dangerous. The road was winding, there were no footpaths and cars would fly around the corners. I never walked with Wade along the road and he was never left unattended in the front yard because the road was so dangerous. Now we have moved to a quiet, dead-end suburban street with paved footpaths and I have an opportunity to teach him not to run out on the road safely. This house has no front fences so as soon as we moved in, I started taking him for an evening walk. When we reached the footpath at the end of the driveway I would ask him, “Which way Wade? This way? (Pointing up the street) or that way? (pointing down the street)”

The idea behind this was to encourage him to turn left or right when he got to the end of the driveway instead of running straight out on the road. By doing this every time, I am hoping that if by some horrible chance he does get out on his own one day, he might be more likely to stay on the footpath… hopefully.

As we walked along the footpath, occasionally he would walk towards the road so I asked him, “Do you want to cross the road?” Ok.
As we approach the kerb I say, “When we get to the road we muuuuust, STOP!” And I do an exaggerated stop with my feet and put both my hands up in a stop sign. Then I squat down next to him so I am at eye level with him and point up the street.

“Any cars this way? Nooooo.”
“Any cars that way? Nooooo.”
“Then? We can? Gooooooo”

He joins in with me as we say Gooooo and then we step off onto the road.

If there is a car I say,
Any cars this way? Yes! Look there’s a car. So? We must STOP“.
Then I start again until there are no cars and we can gooooo!

After three days of doing this on our evening walk, I was so happy to see him stand at the edge of the road and try to do it. In fact it was drop-dead adorable.

“Car da waay? noooo.” As he pointed one way, “Car da way? Noooo, gooooo!” As he pointed the other way. Then he stepped off onto the road. I still have to watch him because he isn’t actually looking for the cars and still doesn’t actually understand what he is doing but it’s a start and that is what I am hoping to build on. If he finds it fun and interesting, then hopefully he will fully grasp the concept soon.

“Cars da way?”

Now that I am a couple of years into this journey I am surprised at how quickly Wade picks up new concepts. The biggest lesson I have learnt is that it doesn’t really matter what method I use as long as it is a small first step of a larger goal, then I can then expand on it as he begins to understand it. It doesn’t matter what words I use as long as they are said in a way he can understand. One or two word sentences said the same way each and every time is working. Backing up a success with lots of celebrations has been key to this too. The most important thing that has helped him learn is consistency and patience. It is really hard some days but if I lose my temper and get frustrated, he shuts down and the lesson is over. Some days I really don’t have the time nor the will and I have to do what it takes to get the job done but when I do have the time, I try to make the most of it. If I let go of how long it takes and focus on what he is learning when we do it, it can be fun too.

The other day we were walking through a shopping centre and I realised Wade had dropped behind to follow me. I gave him a cheeky smile then I started to zig zag across the floor. He followed me thinking it was fun. Then I pretended to walk along the lines on the floor as though it was a tight rope which he tried to copy as well. The sillier the movements the funnier he thought it was. I was lost in the moment having a ball with him when I looked around to see everyone watching us.

And you know what?
Everyone was smiling…

Other posts that relate to this
Behave, Everyone is looking at you
The Cynic Vs the Anxious Wreck : a war story
Life is Therapy Too

12 thoughts on “What’s worked for my son with Down syndrome…road safety.

  1. Thank-you for this. My son is two and has Down syndrome. What a refreshing approach to teaching any child how to manage with and without you. I have to continually fight against many harsh voices from my own growing up and I really appreciate when folks share effective, yet gentle approaches to guiding children. I hope my kids don’t have to fight so hard when parenting their own kids as a result.

  2. Great work! I remember taking my son to a speech therapy appt when he was about four. I was astounded to see a mum with a little girl who had Down syndrome (maybe six or seven years old) leaving and walking to her car and not even looking behind at her daughter following. At that point I felt we would never reach that place of trust that our son would just follow safely. Now, he does and we always get him to check for traffic when we cross a road. The more practice the better.

    • Thankyou! It’s such a shame that we set out being told to expect difficulty. On the one hand its good to know where the difficulty may come from but we should be able to expect success too!

  3. Side note: Those “retailers” who put candy and chocolates on the bottom shelf do not actually make that decision, they are put there by the food companies who pay millions of dollars for prime shelf space, and corporate merchandisers whose sole job is to decide exactly where each candy bar and toy will go. My point? The people who have to clean up the after those kids are the employees making minimum wage, and have zero to do with why each product is where it is, and that’s unfair. Every mom should have to work retail at least once in their life. Having three kids of my own, one being special needs, and working in a grocery store for ten years, it’s amazing how my kids actually straighten the shelves when we pass by them, because I can manage my kids.

    • Yes. I’ve worked in hospitality for almost 20 years and it’s a miracle I chose to have kids after that!
      This is just supposed to be a funny gripe at something that bugs me when I’m out but I guess my sense of humour isn’t for everyone…
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Loved this entry.. It has given me great insight into how I can work with illy on this. Would love to hear what you have to say on ‘toilet training’.. 😉 thanks for sharing!!!

    • Ummmm….nothing so far. A couple of minor successes but nothing consistent at all. I am thinking about a week long intensive bootcamp for him when I can muster up the courage to spend all week cleaning up after him and doing multiple loads of washing. I’ll let you know how that goes….

  5. Thanks for the lovely blog. I was in search of some material I could refer to which would have helped me in understanding different ways of teaching my son about road safety. But your blog and your experience has given a good insight as to how to approach the situation.

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