Most parents have experienced that heart-stopping feeling of momentarily loosing track of your small child at a park or mall when they simply wander out of sight. For parents of children with autism, this behavior often persists long past the toddler years. Many children with autism never outgrow this tendency to wander.
In a 2007 online poll through the National Autism Association, 92% of parents reported that their children with autism have a tendency to wander. In 2010, the National Autism Association reported eight children, ages 3 to 8, died as a result of wandering behavior. These children either drowned or succumbed to prolonged outside exposure. This is a very dangerous aspect of autism that the general public is largely unaware of.
There are a variety of reasons why children with autism may wander off. They may feel stress, sensory overload, or simply be drawn to a favorite place and want to get there. Impulsivity is, in general, the reason it continues to be problematic and why they cannot "learn" to not wander away. It is a continual challenge for families, and promoting awareness and understanding of this behavior, is essential if we are going to protect these children.
Our home is like Fort Knox in an effort to keep our son inside. Dead bolts, a security fence in our backyard, and door alarms for staters. Also, everyone who enters our home is always given firm directions to keep the front door locked. I am constantly checking to see where my son is and if the doors are secure.
My son has "escaped" our home on two very frightening occasions. The first time he was found within minutes on the sidewalk a couple houses away from us. The second required a call to 911 when we could not locate him on our own. I could barely keep myself composed as I spoke to dispatch, who luckily received a call as we spoke, about a boy matching my son's description, who appeared disabled and lost in our neighborhood playground. Those were the longest ten minutes of my life.
Parents of children with autism CAN take steps to protect their children. These are a few recommendations made by various autism organizations:
1. Alert first responders. Provide them with key personal information regarding your child and their specific needs. Introduce yourself and your child to local law enforcement and provide them with a recent photo for them to keep on file.
2. Teach your child to swim. Swim lessons for children with special needs are available at many YMCA locations nationwide.
3. Alert your neighbors. If they are unaware of your child's needs, update them. I absolutely recommend this. My neighbors were instrumental in my son's safe return both times he wandered away.
4. Secure your home. Dead bolts, door alarms, backyard fences, are all all good investments. There are even various grants available through local and national organizations. Get in touch with our local ASA (Autism Association of America) Harrisburg branch, to request more information on potential grants or local assistance.
5. Consider an ID bracelet or Tracking Device. Various GPS tracking systems are available, such as, Project Lifesaver or LoJack SafetyNet Services. Again, grants are sometimes available, and can be inquired about by contacting those organizations.
Overall, the key to addressing this unique challenge our children with autism face, is to be as proactive as possible. The more awareness we can bring to this issue the better. Essentially, it will always take a "village" to keep our children who are prone to wandering safe.