Having a child wander off is scary for any parent or caregiver, adding in the complexities of a child with autism makes it even harder. Will the child be able to communicate to someone to let them know they are lost, or where their home is? Will they be startled by a new sound or unfamiliar area and hide? What happens if they are near water and cannot swim?
A 2012 study funded in part by Autism Speaks found that 49% of parents of children on the autism spectrum have experienced that unimaginable moment.
I am one of those parents. Two of my boys and I were playing in the backyard with our dog and my autistic son Brady (who is six and partially verbal) decided to go around to the side of the house to get a toy. He then opened the gate that leads to our driveway and the street and before I could get over there, had run across the street to the open space and let our dog out to run up the block. My 9 year old and I were both running to catch up. That spooked Brady who didn’t understand why we were hollering, so he took off again. After a very emotional and breathless 5 minutes, we were able to get Brady back in the house and then collect the dog from the neighbors yard.
It was a span of maybe 7 minutes, of which 5 of them we could see him, but not catch up. We also have the added factor that often Brady wears noise canceling headphones outside because of his sensitivity to wind and noise. It is a day I will never forget. We now have extra locks on all the doors in the house, up out of his reach. We also are installing a better latch on the gate he was able to open. Our immediate neighbors are aware of Brady and his autism in case they see him out by himself.
Autism Speaks has some of these tips and more on their Wandering Resources page.
Six tips to help prevent wandering:
(From AWAARE: Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Coalition)
1. Secure Your Home
Consider contacting a professional locksmith, security company or home improvement professional to promote safety and prevention in your home. You may find it is necessary to prevent your loved one from slipping away unnoticed by installing secure dead bolt locks that require keys on both sides, a home security alarm system, inexpensive battery-operated alarms on doors, placing hook and eye locks on all doors above your child’s reach, fencing your yard, adhering printable STOP SIGNS to doors, windows and other exits, etc.
2. Consider a Tracking Device
Check with local law enforcement for Project Lifesaver or LoJak SafetyNet services. These tracking devices are worn on the wrist or ankle and locate the individual through radio frequency. Various GPS tracking systems are also available.
3. Consider an ID Bracelet
Medical ID bracelets will include your name, telephone number and other important information. They may also state that your child has autism and is non-verbal if applicable. If your child will not wear a bracelet or necklace, consider a temporary tattoo with your contact information.
4. Teach Your Child to Swim
Swimming lessons for children with special needs are available at many YMCA locations. The final lesson should be with clothes on. Remember: teaching your child how to swim does not mean your child is safe in water. If you own a pool, fence it and if neighbors have pools, let them know of these safety precautions and your child’s tendency to wander. Remove all toys or items of interest from the pool when not in use.
5. Alert Your Neighbors
It is recommended that caregivers plan a brief visit with neighbors to introduce their loved or provide a photograph. Knowing your neighbors can help reduce the risks associated with wandering. See the caregiver tool kit below for resources to use to alert them.
6. Alert First Responders
Providing first responders with key information before an incident occurs may improve response. Informational handouts should include all pertinent information and be copied and carried with caregivers at all times. Circulate the handout to family, neighbors, friends and co-workers, as well as first responders. See the tool kits below for resources to use to alert them.
You can find many more resources at autismspeaks.org/wandering-resources. The Autism Speaks community is made up of parents of autistic kids. They collaborated and made another great list of ideas they had and things they have tried to help prevent elopement. You can find that list here.
If you have any advice/tips, please add them in our comments section! I’d love to also hear if you have dealt with a similar situation and how it was handled. We are in this together and it’s always great to hear that we aren’t alone in the journey.