September 3, 2004
For Sept. 28, Peter Anderson’s birthday, his parents are still trying to decide whether to light 10 candles on his birthday cake.
Less than six weeks ago, the Andersons’ home in Mesa caught fire after Peter played with matches on his parents’ bed. Much of the house was destroyed. The fourth-grader, however, is not sure what happened.
Peter has autism, a cognitive disorder that can impair a person’s communications skills, sensory experiences and ability to learn. Although many children who are not autistic make the mistake of playing with matches, preventing such risky behaviors is a bigger challenge for families with autistic children, said Denise Resnick, co-founder and board chairwoman of the autism center in Phoenix.
"It’s just (another example) of how challenging life with an autistic child can be, and even life-threatening," said Resnick, who has a 13-year-old son with autism. "We try to teach our (autistic) kids, but there is this gray area, and much of that gray area surrounds danger and safety."
Despite repeated warnings not to play with matches, it’s been hard to help Peter and his 11-year-old brother, Kevin, who is also autistic, understand the consequences of dangerous behavior, said their mother, Becky Anderson.
"They’re not very good at checking for cars when they cross the street, or realizing when things are hot or cold," she said. "Danger is one of those abstract concepts that’s hard to teach autistic children."
Fortunately, neither parent nor any of the six Anderson kids were hurt. The children who were home when the fire started followed the fire drill they had practiced before, going out the garage and meeting by a neighbor’s tree. The family found a home to live in until their house is rebuilt. Money from the Andersons’ insurance company and donations from friends have helped them replace belongings. And the kids have started school, helping to return their lives to normal, said Becky Anderson.
The challenging part will be helping Peter understand what happened when he played with matches and why he should stay away from them, she said. Because Peter is a visual learner, she plans to show him a picture book his teacher made for him, called a social story, showing the risks of playing with matches. After that, she’ll show him pictures of the fire, including burned toys that were in his room.
The visual lesson will probably begin on Peter’s birthday, especially if there are lighted candles on his cake, she said. "There are some things you can teach an autistic person to do, and I hope this is one of those things Peter can do."
Find out more
Autism is the leading developmental disorder in children. An estimated 1 in 166 children are affected by autism or a related disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For more information about autism, contact the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center at (602) 340-8717 or visit www.autismcenter.org.