Keeping Your Child Safe
Tags: News and Advice; Resource Guide
by Bernadette Murphy Bentley, MPA
It’s nearly summer—typically a time of carefree days filled with relaxation and fun for kids and parents. When you are raising a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), however, there is no vacation from the many additional challenges you face to keep your child out of harm's way.
We’ve all heard the news reports from across the country of children with autism who have wandered away from their caretakers. In a recent report, the National Autism Association found that children with ASD who live in the northeastern part of the US (and in other parts of the country that experience extreme seasonal variations) are in greater danger in the summer than those who live in areas with more stable seasons. Changes that occur with the warmer weather—such as open doors and windows, the use of screen doors and air conditioners, more outdoor events, and the introduction of new routines and different activities in new locations with different caretakers—are likely to blame.
Here are some suggestions on how to keep your child safe all year round.
The first step is to read "12 Ways to Prevent, and Respond to, ASD Wandering," an easy-to-understand guide for anybody who takes care of children with ASD, including parents/guardians, friends/family, teachers/therapists, camp counselors, etc. Some of the techniques recommended include:
- Understand Wandering Patterns and Eliminate Triggers. Learn how to determine what type of wandering your child does or might do and how to address each type. Includes terrific social story templates that you can individualize for your child.
- Teach Your Child About Wandering Safety. Learn strategies you can use for children with limited communication—as well as those with functional communication. Also includes a link to stop signs you can print and put on any exit your child might use as a reminder that it's not safe to leave.
- Secure Your Home or Whatever Location Your Child is In. This means ANY way your child might be able to leave, including:
- gates, doors, pet entrances
- windows without safety guards, an unfenced yard
- weak or loose-fitting fences/doors/gates/windows that could yield to a child’s pressure
- tears in window screens or screen doors that kids could make bigger and get out
- items near fences that a child could climb on to get over
Do not underestimate your child's ability to figure out your locking system. For some families, a simple deadbolt might do the job; for others it has to be a spring-loaded latch-and-hook; and for others, only a key system or combination keypad will work. Ask a locksmith or a security professional for ideas suited to your situation.
And do not forget windows! If yours do not have the built-in safety lock, be sure to add them. Consider either a full-house security system or alarms that activate when doors and windows are opened for added peace-of-mind.
Protection in Case of Wandering
"12 Ways to Prevent, and Respond to, ASD Wandering" also provides advice on how to PROTECT children in case they do manage to wander. Here are some suggestions:
- Consider a Personal Locator. A variety of tracking devices are available, some of which are operated by local police departments, including Project LifeSaver and Safety Net by LoJack. The Doug Flutie Foundation offers free activation and free Safety Net service for a year for families who meet income guidelines through the Flutie Family Safe & Secure Project.
- Consider ID Materials. The guide recommends a medical ID bracelet with the parents' name and phone number, along with information about the child's communication method (e.g., "nonverbal but responds to visual pictures") and likes/dislikes (e.g., "soft music soothes him but touch scares him.")
There are a variety of other products you can use including shoe tags, military-style tags, ID cards kept in a pocket or sewn into clothes or attached to a belt or zipper or lanyard, or even temporary tattoos with your contact information.
- Alert Your Neighbors. The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration says that, "More often than not, it’s a member of the public who has found a missing person with autism, and your neighbors could be guardian angels in emergency situations." It is essential that you tell your people who live in your area about your child, give them your phone number and information about wandering, and ask them to call if they ever see your child alone outside.
AWAARE also recommends that you give your local emergency personnel information about your child by filling in the "Autism Elopement Alert Form" so they can be better prepared to assist in the event they are ever called. If you live in the city of Boston, register with the North Star Personal Alert Program.
In addition, AWAARE encourages every family to prepare a "Family Wandering Emergency Plan" so that each member knows what to do if wandering does occur.
This overview of techniques can help you keep your child safe from wandering, but it is not an exhaustive guide. Please be sure to read the information provided in the links throughout the document, and to also check out "Summer Safety Tips for Parents of Children with Autism."
Wishing you and your family a very fun, and very safe, summer!