Safety is one of the top priorities for parents of children with autism. Ensuring that the child is safe is very stressful, especially if the child has a wandering or elopement behavior. Elopement is the tendency to wander away from safe surroundings. How often do you see on television that an elderly person with dementia or Alzheimers is missing? Or a child of any age who has autism or other special needs? With autism, it is especially frightening as many children with autism are drawn to water.
Almost 1/2 of All Children with Autism Wander
A recent study shows that almost half of the children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a tendency to wander, and nearly half of those with a tendency to wander are reported as missing. One very important thing to keep in mind is that when a child with autism wanders, it is not usually the result of inattentive parenting — it is more so the child’s reaction to something around them. Some children may wander because they are obsessed with getting something that they want, not necessarily to run away from something!
There are very obvious concerns when a child with autism wanders, especially if they go missing for any length of time. In cases where a child is particulary drawn to water, there is the danger of drowning. Or a wandering child may enter a street or parking lot where they encounter unsuspecting traffic.
I know of some families who basically have escape artists living in their homes. In order to keep their child safe, several locks might be located at various spots on the doors and windows to the home; these locks often are kept locked at all times.
I will never forget the story told to me of a young mother whose son with autism was sound asleep when she decided to take a shower. She double-checked the front door to their home to ensure that it was locked and hopped in for a quick shower. When she was done with her shower, she walked into the living room to find the front door standing wide open and her son was no longer in his bedroom asleep. She raced out the front door calling his name but he did not answer. Not only did he get out of the house, but he also managed to open and close the gate to the privacy fence belonging to the neighbor’s house.
After walking up and down the street calling his name for several minutes, the mother headed back to her house to call the police. As she passed her neighbor’s house, the neighbor saw her and said, “Guess who walked into my bedroom a few minutes ago!” There were 3 locks on the front door in that home, and the highest one was located where the mother had to stand on tiptoe to reach it — it was determined that the boy must have unlocked it by using a broom or similar item to reach it!
Fortunately that story had a happy ending! However, many do not! I have lost count of the number of stories I have read where a child with autism has wandered off and was later found drowned in a nearby pond, lake or river! Because these children do not always know how to react to their surroundings, they might go with anybody who asks them to go with them. Or they might wander onto a busy street with no concept of the danger of the cars driving on the street! They might not even realize that they are lost or know how to ask anyone for help.
Tips for Preventing Wandering and Potential Tragedy
- Secure the Home. Place locks on all doors and windows. Some people install deadbolt locks that require keys to unlock it on both sides. Others use the hook and eye locks installed at a height where the child cannot reach. You might put inexpensive battery-operated alarms on the doors and windows. Or install a fence with locks placed higher on the gates. Some children might just need a printable STOP sign taped on the door to remind them not to leave the home.
- Consider a Tracking Device. Some local law enforcement agencies might already be linked to certain tracking services, so check with them. Many times, the tracking devices for these programs are worn on the wrist or ankle. There are also various GPS tracking devices available.
- Consider a Medical ID. Medical bracelets or necklaces that have information on them are available at a number of places. If you do not think your child will leave a bracelet or necklace on, consider a temporary tatoo with your contact information for times when you need to go somewhere with the child.
- Teach your Child to Swim. Although knowing how to swim does not always prevent drowning, it increases your child’s odds. Keep any pools covered and if possible put fences around any ponds.
- Alert Neighbors and Local Law Enforcement. If your neighbors and law enforcement are aware that you have a wanderer on your hands, it is much easier to have them keeping an eye out before there is a problem than to suddenly be faced with a situation and then trying to introduce the issue. If they are aware of the situation, they can also take safety precautions such as locking gates, covering swimming pools, etc.
- Make Certain that Wandering Issues are Addressed in the Child’s IEP at school. If your child requires one-on-one supervision, make sure that it is in place. Keep the school informed of all wandering incidents, including where the child was found, so that similar places can be looked at. Make the school aware of any events that have triggered wandering incidents. Make school security staff aware of the situation and that they have information, including pictures of your child, readily available. Be sure to include safety skills as an area to be worked on at school through the IEP.
If an individual tends to wander, there is no way to ensure that a wandering event will never happen. But some of these suggestions might cut down on the likelihood of such an event.
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