Wandering by children with autism is common, dangerous and puts tremendous stress on families. Nearly half of children with autism will wander from safe environments. And about a third of children with autism are non-verbal, making them especially at risk in instances of wandering as they may not respond to their names being called or may become anxious or fearful if approached by strangers. Experts suggest that it is better to keep a wandering child with autism in close sight once they have been located until family and professionals arrive instead of trying to approach or restrain them.
A New York family and an entire community became painfully aware of the threat of wan
dering in October 2013 when 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo, a non-verbal child with autism, wandered from his Queens school via an unlocked door. Avonte’s remains were found the following January on the shore of the East River. The vulnerable teenager’s family has since filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming in part that despite being informed of Avonte’s propensity to wander, the school failed to exercise proper precaution to keep him safe while there.
The following are tips from AWAARE or Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Coalition to help kip your child safe at both home and school.
Six Tips to Help Prevent Wandering and Wandering-Related Tragedies
1. Secure Your Home
Consider contacting a professional locksmith, security company or home improvement professional to promote safety and prevention in your home. You may find it is necessary to prevent your loved one from slipping away unnoticed by installing secure dead bolt locks that require keys on both sides, a home security alarm system, inexpensive battery-operated alarms on doors, placing hook and eye locks on all doors above your child’s reach, fencing your yard, adhering printable STOP SIGNS to doors, windows and other exits, etc.
2. Consider a Tracking Device
Check with local law enforcement for Project Lifesaver or LoJak SafetyNet services. These tracking devices are worn on the wrist or ankle and locate the individual through radio frequency. Various GPS tracking systems are also available.
3. Consider an ID Bracelet
Medical ID bracelets will include your name, telephone number and other important information. They may also state that your child has autism and is non-verbal if applicable. If your child will not wear a bracelet or necklace, consider a temporary tattoo with your contact information.
4. Teach Your Child to Swim
Swimming lessons for children with special needs are available at many YMCA locations. The final lesson should be with clothes on. Remember: teaching your child how to swim does not mean your child is safe in water. If you own a pool, fence it and if neighbors have pools, let them know of these safety precautions and your child’s tendency to wander. Remove all toys or items of interest from the pool when not in use.
5. Alert Your Neighbors
It is recommended that caregivers plan a brief visit with neighbors to introduce their child or provide a photograph. Knowing your neighbors can help reduce the risks associated with wandering.
6. Alert First Responders
Providing first responders with key information before an incident occurs may improve response. Informational handouts should include all pertinent information and be copied and carried with caregivers at all times. Circulate the handout to family, neighbors, friends and co-workers, as well as first responders.
Seven Steps to Prevent Wandering at Your Child’s School
1. Address wandering issues in your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
If there is a history of wandering incidents, it’s important to call a meeting with school staff, administrators, and your child’s IEP team to make them aware of these past situations, as well as educate them on the autism wandering issue in general. If something changes or an incident occurs, you as a parent have the right to amend the IEP and adjust the particular items, at any time.
2. Write a letter requesting that you always be informed, immediately and in writing, of any wandering incident on or off the campus.
If your child requires one-on-one supervision, be sure to make this extremely clear to school staff – and clearly documented in the IEP – and emphasize that under no circumstances should your child be left alone at any time.
3. Carefully document all wandering-related incidents.
Sharing this information with the staff at your child’s school will help prepare them if such an incident occurs at school. For example, where has your child been found in the past? What are his or her fascinations or obsessions? Where would he/she most likely be drawn to near campus?
4. Try to eliminate all possible triggers that have led to wandering in the past.
For example, if your child is drawn to water, be sure that all pools, lakes, etc. in the area of the school are blocked off so that there is no chance your child will be able to access them.
5. Ask what the school’s policies are on wandering prevention.
Understand any and all security measures used by the school. If you think something is missing (i.e. a barrier you find necessary that may not be in place), be sure to voice your concerns. Speaking up is often required to ensure your child’s safety. A note from your child’s doctor noting these incidents could help provide sound reasoning for strong security measures.
6. Introduce your child to all security staff.
Provide the security team with more information about your child, such as how to calm him or her down, whether or not he or she responds well to touch, sound, etc. All security should be aware of your child’s tendency to wander so they take extra note of the importance of keeping an eye on your child. Click here for an Elopement Alert Form to fill out with specific information about your child for all first responders including school security.
7. In addition to including all wandering-related information, be sure that your child’s IEP also includes safety skills and wandering-prevention measures.
Include these skills in your child’s therapy programs if you are able to do so.
Source: The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Coalition