Street Safety for Your Special Needs Child

Published on in Trisomy 21 Update

Unintentional pedestrian accidents are the fifth leading cause of injury-related death in children aged 5-19 years old. However, children with disabilities are two to five times more likely to be killed in pedestrian accidents than their typically developing peers.

Considering that a typically developing child cannot judge the distance and speed of an oncoming car until 10 years old, it may take a person with Down syndrome much longer to appreciate the associated dangers. Furthermore, some children with Down syndrome may be more impulsive, erratically running into the street with no regard for caution.

Pedestrian injuries can occur in the street, on the sidewalk, in driveways, and in parking lots. Giving your child with special needs a better foundation for understanding street safety may help prevent pedestrian injury. 

Model pedestrian safety behavior

Your child learns by watching you. On your everyday excursions, take extra care to follow traffic rules. Walk on sidewalks and paths. Only cross at a crosswalk, even if there is no traffic in sight, and wait patiently to observe the WALK/DON’T WALK signs. Look right-left-right at every crossing. Make eye contact with drivers as you are crossing.

Narrate these steps as you go so they become predictable to your child. If possible, use routes with audible pedestrian signals. This provides an extra prompt that helps associate the appropriate traffic signal light with the go-ahead to walk. offers helpful tips for steps to take to safely cross the street.

Use flash cards to teach traffic safety vocabulary

There are many simple graphics available on the internet that represent the components of our traffic safety system. Using these may be a great teaching aid for your child to learn the names and purposes of each.

If the internet images are different from those in your neighborhood, consider taking photos of your own driveway, street signs, the sidewalk, and traffic lights nearby so the learned words are matched to the items as your child will recognize them. Don’t forget to review railroad crossings, rules for getting on and off the school bus, and safe behavior in parking lots.

For example, this street safety activity sheet provides some common signs and visuals.

Play red light/green light or the freeze game

This is a simple and fun way to teach STOP and GO in response to your verbal command.   You can build on the freeze game by trying to entice your child to move — like by offering a piece of candy. If your child knows moving is against the rules, it will help teach them impulse-control. If you don’t remember these games from your own childhood, you can search for a description online.

Play games in your backyard or local park that simulate traffic experiences

Use orange cones or ropes to indicate boundaries that your child is not allowed to cross. Place STOP signs at the perimeter. Create a treasure hunt with visible objects beyond the boundary as a reminder that, even when tempted, the boundary cannot be crossed.

Watch traffic safety videos and sing traffic safety songs

Here are some examples to get you started:

Do not use electronic devices while walking in the street

Teach your child not to use electronic devices while walking in the street — and model this safe behavior as well. In recent years, there has been an increase in pedestrian accidents in teen and adult age groups, presumably related to the distraction provided by smartphones and other electronic devices. 

Be visible

Dress your child in reflective clothing or have them carry a flashlight at times of lower visibility (dawn, dusk, after nightfall).

Activate parental control car door locks

For children with a tendency to run off (and may be quicker than you), activate the parental control car door locks. Consider commercially available safety products, such as safety release covers for seat belts or a safety harness/tether.

At any age, insist on holding hands for walking in the street if necessary. You may be able to obtain a handicapped parking placard, with the approval of your physician, so there is less distance to cover in public parking areas.

More safety tips