Have you ever stepped out to the backyard and found the gate opened and your son nowhere to be seen? Have you ever gone to bed anxious about your kid waking up before you and sneaking out of the house? You are not alone. If you have a kid with autism or a cognitive delay, this is a fairly common situation that parents have to deal with. I was surprised chatting with my special needs Mums group not long ago, that half of us had kids who had escaped from home at some point in time. As I am concerned about my own child´s safety, I have made a list of tips to prevent an autistic child from wandering off.
Autism & Elopement
A US national survey by Interactive Autism Network (IAN) on elopement behaviour in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) concluded that 49% of the children participating in the study had engaged in elopement behaviour at least once after the age of 4.
To take the worry one notch up, ASD kids may be non-verbal so they will not have the ability to communicate names, addresses or phone numbers. And even when they are verbal, they may still feel anxious interacting with strangers or they simply just won´t know their addresses and phone numbers.
Why do ASD kids wander off?
Parents that participated in this research stated the following reasons for the kids to elope:
- enjoys running or exploring
- tries to reach a place he/she enjoys
- tries to escape an anxious situation
- pursues his/her special topic
- tries to escape uncomfortable sensory stimuli
What can we do to prevent elopement?
I´ve put together a list of all the tips and tricks that the special needs Moms in my group and I have ever used. I have also done plenty of research to figure out what other options are available for us. So, if you also have a kid that is at risk of wandering off, these are some things you may consider doing (I am not recommending products or brands. I just list them for your reference. Please, do your own research to figure out what works for you and your family)
30 TIPS ON HOW TO PREVENT YOUR AUTISTIC CHILD FROM WANDERING OFF
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Securing the house:
A child may wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning and wander off. You need to be able to go to bed knowing that he/she will be safe. These are some of the options to secure your child´s bedroom:
1.Battery-operated alarms for doors.
These mini alarms are really useful. If your kid wakes up earlier than you and wanders out of the bedroom, the alarm will trigger as soon as he/she opens the door. Some of them have a “chime” setting, which is nice, since you may not want a 120-decibel alarm mode that is great for an intruder but would really scare the little ones.
3. A sensor pad on the bed with an alarm. An alarm will be triggered when your kid gets up from the bed.
4. A sensor pad on the floor, so that an alarm is triggered as soon as he steps out of bed. They often use them with elderly people, but why not with the little ones.
5. A wander alarm with motion detector– It can detect movement in the bedroom or hallway and can alert you if your child tries to leave the room.
6. If your child´s bedroom is on the ground floor you will also need to secure bedroom windows. Depending on what type of windows you have this could be achieved through window latches or locks.
Around the house:
These are some examples of measures you can take to secure the house exit points:
7. Deadbolts for the exit doors, so that they could only be opened with a key-
8. Keypad door locks – so that anybody trying to exit from the house needs to input a code.
9. Battery-operated alarms for sliding doors into the yard
10. An enclosed fence around the house.
11. Padlocks /locks for the gate
Some discouraging strategies:
12. Stop Signs by the door that may serve in cases to remind them they are not expected to leave the house.
13. Social Stories about Safety of Staying at Home, that emphasize how staying at home keeps you safe and makes your parents happy. Here, you can see an example provided by The National Autism Association.
“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”:
14. Be ready with updated leaflets with some basic information:
- your contact details
- a picture of your child
- your child´s name and how he likes to be addressed
- physical description
- tips on how to talk to him and how to calm him
- how to talk to him, how to calm him
15. Prepare an emergency plan. Some of the things that may be useful to discuss in advance and be ready to action:
- How you and your spouse /partner will get in touch with each other
- What calls will be made (police, neighbours)
- What places should be checked first (any dangerous place near the house – rivers, high traffic areas, his/her favourite places, …)
16. Alert trusted neighbours
17. Alert the school. You may also leave with them some of the leaflets that we have mentioned, and discuss with them the emergency plan.
18. Alert your local police or neighbourhood watch. After a couple of wandering incidents, one of the Mums in my group decided to leave mug shots of her child at our local police station, to be able to have a better and speedy response if required.
19. Consider using a tracking device.
It is virtually impossible to recommend a tracking device that will work for every kid, as each of them is different. Some of the thing that you need to consider are:
- will he/she be ok wearing a device or will they try to remove it
- does it need to be water-resistant
- is the mobile network in the areas he/she frequents working consistently (lots of the devices use geotracking)
- is it battery operated and if so how long does the battery last?
- is he/she always at risk of eloping or there are specific situations
These are a lot of options here, so just to mention some examples:
- GPS Wearables (pouch, belt, shirt) like the ones developed by Angelcare
- Kids´Shoe Tag MedicAlert
- Watches with location trackers
20. Wristbands with contact details and important information. ID bands can communicate:
- Critical information (I have autism, seizures, diabetes, I am non-verbal, etc.)
- Who to call in case of emergency
These are some examples:
21. Lost & Found Tattoos. Some kids will remove anything you put on them (tracking devices, bands) so another clever way to provide them with the critical information that will be needed if they get lost can be lost and found tattoos.
22. Safety wristband, that ties you to your child. If you have a runner and you are going to be in a crowded place this is another potential option.
A few tips on safety teaching:
23. Teach them about road crossing
24. Enrol your child in swimming lessons. This recommendation is an important one, as many children with autism are drawn to water.
Some other tips and tricks:
25. Service Dogs. A service dog can not only be an amazing companion but a great help to prevent runners succeed. If you are out and about and your child tries to run away, the service dog to which your child is attached will just stop, preventing his/her escape.
If you are travelling:
26. Carry portable locks
27. Stay alert. Elopement can happen any time, so just be aware and let family and caretakers know that they should always keep eyes on your kid both at home and when they are doing outdoors activities.
28. In big gatherings, there should always be a designated person monitoring your child. Take turns but always make sure it is clear who is responsible at all times.
29. If possible, identify elopement reasons and try to address them. Just to share some examples:
- If he loves water, make sure he often goes to the swimming pool. Make it part of a schedule he knows well
- If he has a special interest, include that in his routines, so that he does not need to elope to access it.
- If his escapes are linked to specific stimuli, try to prevent them.
30. Teach them how to respond if they get lost (e.g. Show your wristband to an adult)
Did you find some of these tips useful to help prevent an autistic child from wandering off? If so, please, share it on social media.
Are you about to start your summer holiday? Read my “Survivor´s Guide to Traveling with Kids. 50 Awesome Tips, Special Needs Included“. It´s packed with really useful advice!
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