It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: They turn their attention away from a child for just a moment to answer the phone or check dinner in the oven, and when they look again, the child is gone, and a frantic search begins.
This scenario can be a problem for any parent, but parents of children with autism have special reason to be concerned. According to research conducted by the Interactive Autism Network, approximately half of parents surveyed reported that their children with autism who were between the ages of four to 10 attempted to wander, a rate that is almost four times higher than that of unaffected siblings.
The survey also revealed that between ages seven and 10, nearly 30% of children with autism engage in wandering behavior – a rate that is eight times higher than their unaffected siblings. The report also noted that 35% of the families participating in the survey said that their children can “never” or “rarely” provide their name, address or phone number.
In addition to having a higher incidence of wandering, children with autism may be in greater danger when they become lost because they often experience difficulty finding their way home. They may also be less aware of common dangers such as traffic and bodies of water.
However, there are steps parents can take to prevent children with autism from wandering away from home and to locate them quickly and recover them safely if they do. Here are some tips designed to keep children with autism safe:
Install an alert system on doors and windows: A system that sounds an alert whenever a door or window is opened can provide parents of autistic children some peace of mind. The main advantage is that parents are alerted immediately so that they can prevent the child from becoming lost.
Consider locks and fences that require adult assistance to operate: Placing latches and deadbolts high on doors or gates may be a great solution for parents of smaller children.
Make sure the child knows how to swim: One of the most important steps parents can take to keep their children safe is to ensure the child knows how to swim. This does not completely eliminate the danger of a wandering child encountering water, but it is an added safety measure.
Build a neighborhood network: Getting to know the neighbors can be an advantage. If neighbors are aware that the child has autism and have a number to call if they see the child wandering, they can alert parents so that the child can be recovered quickly.
Create a digital record and share with local first responders now: Documenting important health and personal details about your child and providing this valuable information to first responders before an actual wandering can save time and help first responders.
Understand wandering patterns and “triggers”: Wandering occurs in various forms, may follow certain patterns and norms, and is often triggered by certain environmental or behavioral factors. The National Autism Association (www.naa.org) has a comprehensive list of these patterns and triggers to understand how to possibly prevent wandering.
Think about an electronic tracking device: An electronic tracking device can be an invaluable tool in locating a missing child, and affordable devices are available. Consider one that is comfortable to wear but difficult for a child to remove without assistance and one that features technology that can instantly alert first responders to the child’s whereabouts.
With high rates of wandering for children with autism, it is natural for parents to be concerned, and the dangers associated with wandering are unfortunately very real. However, with foresight and planning, parents can create a safer environment for children with autism, taking common sense steps to prevent children from wandering and taking advantage of additional resources to quickly locate and recover children who do become lost.