While children wandering off is a concern for pretty much every parent out there, parents of children with autism know it’s an even bigger risk for their kids. Children with autism are more prone to wandering away from a safe place, with a 2012 study finding that nearly half of children with autism had wandered at some point.
Wandering can also be referred to as “elopement”, which refers more specifically to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder who run or wander away from their caregivers or secure locations.
Apart from simply being a deeply worrying event to happen if your child wanders, there are numerous and significant risks associated with elopement. Children with ASD are particularly vulnerable to drowning; 3 in 4 of the deaths associated with wandering for children with autism are the result of drowning. Traffic injuries are also higher among children with autism who wander, among a myriad of other potential dangers.
Here are ways to prevent a wandering event, and how to prepare in case one does happen.
The best cure, as we all know, is prevention – and setting yourself up for success with a handful of tactics that have proven to help prevent wandering is a good first step.
1: Secure the Home
The first place to start is where you likely spend the most time: at home. Go through your house and ensure all doors cannot be unlocked or opened by your child; deadbolts or locks that also lock from the inside with a key may be necessary. Home security systems that beep or have a door and window alarm can be helpful as well. Security gates and fences around your property can be beneficial as well, and provide an extra barrier before your child or teen can wander too far.
2: Teach Your Child to Swim
While learning to swim won’t make your child completely immune to drowning risks, it does provide them with skills to help them if they do fall into water. Special lessons that practice swimming with clothes or shoes on are particularly valuable. If you live near a lake or ocean, teach your child how to swim in those bodies of water and how to get out.
3: Learn and Recognize Triggers
If your child does wander, analyze each episode for potential causes. Are they fascinated by something specific in your environment, such as the trash man each week, or trains that run on a schedule every day? Is it more likely to be related to environmental conditions such as warm or cold weather, loud noises, or a new event? If you know what common triggers are for wandering behavior, you can prepare ahead of time and be more vigilant.
4: Develop communication and behavior strategies
You likely already work on self-calming techniques with your child, but be sure to expand potential situations where they may be necessary. Review how to respond to “no”, have a clear plan that you follow when you go out (especially to new places), and teach them strategies around what they should do if they do get lost. Even if only part of what you teach sticks if your child wanders, having some preparedness and skills is better than none.
5: Establish a Community
Get to know your neighbors and the people around you. Plan a brief visit with neighbors in your area to introduce your loved one(s) and show them a photo. You can also subscribe to the Q5id Guardian app to easily distribute information about your child should they go missing and encourage your neighbors to join as Q5id Guardian volunteers.
What to Do If Your Child Wanders
If the worst happens and your child does wander away from their caretaker or safe place, there are several steps you can take.
1: Start Searching
This can seem obvious, but start searching as soon as you’ve realized your child has likely wandered. Delegate family members or members of your group to search certain areas your child is likely to go. If you have the Q5id Guardian app, you can also issue an alert to any Guardian volunteers in the area to help in your search.
2: Have Someone Stationed at Home
Keep someone trusted at home or where you last were before your child wandered. They will be there in case your child returns and can act as a hub of information as others check-in. Guardian+ subscribers can also be information hubs, receiving updates and details from the volunteers helping in the search directly within the app.
3: Alert the Authorities
If you haven’t been able to find your child within 15 minutes, you should alert the authorities that they are missing. Call your local police department (you do not have to wait 48 hours!) and let them know. Guardian+ subscribers can also notify 911 directly within the app, including all details they have provided in their loved one’s profile.
Keep Your Child Safe
We hope these strategies help you both prevent a wandering episode and prepare you for what to do if one does happen.
If you’d like more resources and for additional advice and tips, we encourage to join the Good Neighbors Club on Facebook! Developed as a place for people to discuss any and all topics revolving around general safety and well-being, it’s also an excellent resource for ensuring that children with ASD are represented when discussing community safety.
We look forward to seeing you in the group!