I recently read that nearly half of children with autism spectrum disorder wander off from a safe and supervised place at some point in their lives (source), and it sent chills down my spine.
While I don’t personally have experience with autism and wandering, I often read horror stories in the newspaper about children who go missing. Whether they get lost in a busy mall, bolt from school, or disappear into the woods behind their house, the initial reaction most people have when they read such a story is to assume the child’s parents or teachers either weren’t paying attention, or did something to cause the child to leave. But what few people realize is that autism and wandering has very little to do with parents and caregivers, and everything to do with the autism diagnosis itself.
A child with autism might wander out of curiosity, in an attempt to remove herself from overwhelming sensory stimuli, or to get away from another anxiety-inducing situation.
Whatever the reason, one thing is abundantly clear: autism and wandering is a significant source of stress for families, and before we pass judgment, we need to properly educate ourselves so we can help those in our community.
It is estimated that 1 in every 68 children is diagnosed with autism each year (source), and today I’m teaming up with AngelSense – a GPS tracking device and a mobile app for kids with autism – to provide 9 tips to keep kids with autism safe.
1. Make safety a priority
I know this probably goes without saying, but if autism and wandering is a challenge your family faces, the first thing you want to do is put safety procedures in place. A lockable fence around your yard, deadbolts on both sides of all the doors to your home, lock and eye latches your child can’t reach on bedroom doors, etc. can all help ensure you’re able to contain your child within a safe environment. Of course, locks aren’t the only thing you can do to keep your child safe. You should also ensure she knows her name, your name, and your phone number, equip her with an identification bracelet, and practice safe words you can use in emergency situations.
2. Identify triggers
While it’s not always possible to predict when a child will wander, or what motivates them to bolt from a safe and supervised environment in the first place, keeping a written log of your child’s behaviors can be extremely important in helping you find consistencies so you can be proactive instead of reactive.
An ABC Chart is a great tool to help track behaviors over time. Also know as a ‘Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence’ chart, this tool can provide a better understanding about the events surrounding a child’s behavior. Each time an undesired behavior occurs (wandering and/or showing signs of stress, disengagement, etc.), you must write down the ABCs of that specific behavior:
Antecedent: The events that occurred before the behavior happened.
Behavior: Your child’s response to the antecedent.
Consequence: What happened after the behavior to either encourage/hinder a repeat of the situation.
The idea is to track the same behavior multiple times to determine if there are any consistencies, and then formulate a plan to change the antecedent and/or consequence to ensure the poor behavior is extinguished. You can also use this tool to determine if the antecedent and/or consequence is out of your child’s control (i.e. a reaction to sensory sensitivities), which can be paramount in helping you anticipate when your child will wander.
3. Talk to your neighbors and first responders
While not all of us enjoy discussing our personal lives with the world at large, it’s important to reach out to your community if your child has a tendency to wander off so they can assist in an emergency. Educate them about autism, introduce them to your child, ask if they would be willing to share their contact information with you, and create a call tree plan whereby each member of your community who receives a call when your child wanders is responsible for calling other people within the call tree. This will help spread the word fast and add more people to your search team in times of need.
4. Keep updated information about your child handy
In the event that your child does go missing, you want to make sure you have relevant information about her at your disposal. Make sure to have updated photographs of her on your smartphone at all times, that you know her current weight and height, and make note of the clothes she wears each day. The more accurate your description, the easier it will be to find her.
5. Teach basic safety
Not all children with autism can communicate their needs effectively, and if autism and wandering is a concern for your family, it’s important you take the steps needed to ensure your child knows basic safety protocols in the event of an emergency. Of course, most people assume this is only a challenge for children who have nonverbal autism, but even a highly verbal child can freeze in an emergency and be unable to communicate her needs and/or tell a neighbor or first responder what her name, address, or phone number is. Remember to practice these things often with your child, and give her a way to communicate her needs in an alternate way (i.e. via a keypad on a smartphone) if needed. Establish a family safe word you can use to stop your child in her tracks when she’s in danger, and equip her with an identification bracelet or card as an added precaution.
6. Invest in an alarm system
If your child is a runner, make sure you have an armed alarm system on every door and window of your house, and use it at all times. I would also talk to your child’s school as well as other places she visits regularly to see what protocols you can put in place to limit the likelihood she can escape and wander away on her own.
7. Sign your child up for swim lessens
Drowning is the leading cause of death in individuals with autism (source), and while it goes without saying that you should invest in swim lessons for all of your children, it’s important to take it a step further for children with autism, especially if they have a tendency to wander off and you live near water. Teach your child how to swim with all of her clothes on. Practice swimming in a lake or ocean if you live within close proximity to either body of water. Remind your child repeatedly that she is never to swim alone.
8. Focus on proper sleep hygiene
Autism and sleep is a hot topic in the special needs community. In fact, I once read that more than 50% of children with autism struggle with sleep disturbances of some kind. MORE THAN 50%! And since sleep deprivation can lead to learning problems, hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, and aggressive behavior, it can feel like a cruel joke that autism and sleep problems go hand-in-hand. Also? When parents and caregivers are up multiple times a night with a child who struggles to sleep, it can lead to extreme exhaustion and fatigue, making them less likely to hear a child wander away in the middle of the night. If this sounds familiar to you, finding ways to ensure your child sleeps through the night is of the upmost importance to you. CLICK HERE for some of our sleep tips for kids with autism.
9. Equip your child with a GPS tracker
While all of these tips to keep kids with autism safe are certainly effective, autism and wandering can be extremely unpredictable, and there’s always a chance your child will successfully escape from your home or her school no matter how hard you try to keep her safe. Fortunately, there are many personal GPS trackers you can buy to enable you to know the exact location of your child at all times, and I’m so excited to introduce you to AngelSense as it’s offered peace of mind to so many parents and caregivers within the autism community.
AngelSense is a personal GPS tracking device and mobile app that allows you to see your child’s locations and routes. Updated every 30 seconds, it learns your child’s daily schedule and identifies regularly visited locations like ‘home’ and ‘school’, sending you text messages every time your child leaves or arrives at a known location, and alerting you instantly when your child is in an unrecognized (or potentially dangerous) place.
How does AngelSense compare to other GPS trackers?
Unlike other GPS trackers, AngelSense provides:
- A detailed full day timeline and route visualization, updated every 30 seconds
- Text alerts at arrival and departure
- A listen-in feature that allows you to hear your child’s surroundings without any intervention by your child
- A ‘runner mode’ that alerts first responders and provides GPS updates every 10 seconds
- A sensory-friendly wearable unit that can only be removed by a parent
- Wide cellular coverage with Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Rogers
- Expert customer support by special needs parents
I particularly love the listen-in feature – not only does it help with locating your child, but it can also help confirm if she’s being bullied or mistreated when you’re not with her, which is something many children with autism have difficulty expressing.
‘If he were to get lost, he can’t say his name or where he lives… It’s terrifying. When you are not with him, it lets you know where he is in the school building, where he is on the playground if he were ever to leave the designated area of the school while I am not there. It will send me a notification that he’s not where he’s supposed to be.’
-Jennifer Garcia, autism mom
The following clip about Jennifer Garcia’s story, and how AngelSense offers her peace of mind really made me appreciate the magnitude of this product, and how it can change the lives of so many parents of children on the autism spectrum.
John Elder Robison once said, ‘Our duty in autism is not to cure but to relieve suffering and to maximize each person’s potential,’ and while AngelSense will not take your child’s autism away, it will give you greater peace of mind while she experiences and explores the wonders of the world around us.
CLICK HERE to find out more about AngelSense and how it can provide peace of mind to you and your family.
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