If you’ve ever felt the fear of realizing that your child is missing, you know it is a feeling you never forget. Parents know, and research confirms, that children with autism are more likely to “wander” or “elope” – in other words, they will leave their house or immediate area without alerting an adult.
A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that of the 1,218 children with autism studied, half of those children had wandered off. Many were missing long enough to cause concern, were in danger of drowning, or at risk of being hurt by traffic. For children with autism running away is a very scary and real danger, but there are things parents can do to protect their children.
Consult with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst to determine the “why,” or function, of your child’s wandering. Does your child wander to a specific location, or in pursuit of a preferred item (e.g., will wander after a dog or butterfly)? Does your child elope from a difficult or upsetting situation (e.g., large crowds, unfamiliar places)? Determining why your child is leaving an area can help to teach them more appropriate communication and safety skills, such as telling an adult you want to go outside, walking while holding hands, or to stop running when mom or dad says “stop” or “come back.”
In addition to teaching your child with autism elopement strategies - new skills to prevent wandering - which may take time and practice, here are some safety precautions you can take around your house to protect your child right away:
- Hook and eye locks, deadbolts, or alarms can all be placed at the top of door frames or sliding doors to prevent a child from opening a door, or to alert an adult that the door has been opened.
- Tracking devices can be worn by your child, so that parents or first responders can locate a child who has gone missing. Some devices can be easily attached to clothing and can be monitored on your smart phone (e.g., AngelSense GPS & Voice Monitoring System). Your local Fire Department or other first responders can tell you more about systems, like Project Lifesaver, which uses radio frequencies to track a wrist or ankle monitor on your child. Radio frequencies can be tracked at further distances, and in areas where cellphone service may be weak (e.g., large parks or wooded areas).
- Consider informing neighbors or your local law enforcement and first responders about your child’s autism spectrum diagnosis. It could be helpful for neighbors who might see your child wandering off to know that they may not respond to their name or to directions to “Stop!!” If your child has a favorite store or restaurant nearby that they might wander to, consider sharing their photo and your contact information with the management. If your child ever shows up at Starbucks unattended asking for a cake-pop, they will know who to call!
- Another safety precaution for autism and running away: teach your child to swim and practice “street safety.” If your child knows how to swim, or can follow pedestrian rules for crossing streets safely, they are less likely to be harmed if they do wander off. Many children have wandered several blocks to their favorite park or ice cream shop, but made it there safely because they had practiced those safety skills with parents many times before!
At Thrive Autism Solution we believe that kids truly have no limits. We serving children and families in Northwest Arkansas, St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri. We are a science-based autism behavioral therapy and consultation service in accordance with the standards of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), and the first in the South to achieve accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) for internationally recognized service standards and best practices.
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