Brenda's Autism Blog
By Brenda Kosky-Deskin
By Brenda Kosky-Deskin
June 1, 2013 Comments (2)
As the parent of a child with Autism, the dangers of wandering are constantly on my mind. My 18-year-old son, Michael, has little regard for safety. He will readily run into the path of a moving car, head for a pool or body of water, or allow the hand of a stranger to lead him away. The consequences of wandering can be tragic, as we are all too well aware. Only last month, there were three separate incidents of wandering that led to the demise of three beautiful children.
In light of these tragedies, I felt compelled to share some of the strategies that my husband and I and other families have used to help keep our children safe from harm. None of them are foolproof, of course, but when used in conjunction with each other, it is my hope that they will prevent other adults and children with Autism from meeting the same fate as Mikaela Lynch, Owen Black, and Drew Howell. This blog is written in their memory.
Have a proper fence erected in your backyard with a child-proof lock. Investigate funding programs or tax breaks for which you might be eligible as they do exist in some regions for those who must retrofit their homes to accommodate family members who have special needs.
Ensure that neighbors with swimming pools have their yards properly enclosed with adequate fences and locked gates.
Advocate for fences in school yards and playgrounds as well, using your child's IEP to support the need if your child has been identified as at-risk for wandering.
Insist on your school providing an individual to watch your child exclusively and creating a behavior plan to address his wandering behaviors. Download this SAMPLE IEP LETTER drafted by The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration to use as a reference.
Make sure windows have locks and alarms on them. If a central alarm system is beyond your budget, less expensive alarm devices are available online and at electronic stores.
If your child cannot reach the tops of doors and is not able to get a chair to reach, install deadbolts on the doors to prevent him from leaving your home on his own. If he can reach, you may wish to use locks that require keys, but BE CERTAIN THAT THERE ARE MULTIPLE KEYS HIDDEN THAT EVERYONE ELSE IN YOUR HOME CAN EASILY ACCESS in the event of an emergency like a fire. Long ago, we used keyed locks but switched over to combination locks shortly after, as we were concerned that keys could too easily be misplaced which could leave family members vulnerable to the risk of being trapped in the house during a fire or other emergency.
While they may be a decorator's nightmare, commercial push-button locks on every exterior door of our house have given our family tremendous peace of mind over the years. We just have to remember to shield our hands when entering the exit code as Michael can be pretty good with numbers. Again, for the safety of others, ensure that EVERYONE ELSE KNOWS THE EXIT COMBINATION in case of emergency.
We have had two mishaps over Michael's 18 years in which he has wandered away from us, and both times can be attributed to miscommunication. The first time it happened a mall. My husband said "You've got Michael" but I heard it is as "I've got Michael" and we both walked away, leaving our five-year old alone for more than ten minutes in one of the largest malls in North America. The second time was on a beach when there was some confusion about which family member was actually watching him. It turned out no one was and fifteen minutes later, we found him wading in the Gulf of Mexico about half a mile down a busy Florida beach. This was a tough and terrifying lesson for all of us but thankfully this story had a happy ending. I can't emphasize how important it is to communicate clearly about who is "on duty". It can be a life-saver.
We've used them and I've gotten stares and comments. I don't care. In a crowded theme park, the peace of mind a harness provides is invaluable. (As Michael got bigger we were unable to find one that fit him so we had one custom made.)
Michael has been taught to stop whenever he approaches a curb or gets out of a car and in his best approximation, says, "Stop, is it safe?" He knows not to proceed any further unless the adult with him says, "Yes, it's safe." You may wish to try these routine - or a customized variation of them if your child is non-verbal, as an added safety precaution.
Make a point of knowing all of the nearby bodies of water and places your child likes to go. When Michael got away from us in a mall once, we took off in opposite directions and my husband headed for the pile of stuffed toys at the back of the Disney Store that Michael loved so much. Thankfully, he found him there, happily arranging all of the plush toys. Have these places listed and bodies of water highlighted on a map and include them in your Autism Emergency Form.
Electronic devices that sound an alert when your child leaves a preset area can be helpful, but of course, never a substitute for personal supervision. We have a video monitor that works in conjunction with our iPhones. Not only does it enable us to watch and listen to Michael when he is in his bedroom, but it can also sound an alert when he gets out of bed with its motion-sensor capabilities.
Service dogs can be trained to try and prevent a person with Autism from wandering and to notify others if the person has left the dog's presence. Explains one Autism Mom I know, "Going out to malls, stores and public places is much easier now because I am not constantly worried about where my son is." She recalls how much better she now sleeps, as her son now wants to stay in his room because that is where his dog is. "I actually have to get him out of bed in the mornings now, which did not happen before. It means that I can now get a restful sleep and not worry about his safety." This mom has had her share of wandering scares, recalling one time when her son left their house in the middle of winter, on his own, to go look at Christmas lights.
If your child is missing, don't wait and try to find him yourself first. Time is too precious. Call 911 immediately and start getting a team of searchers into action. Every second counts.
Create an Autism Emergency Form which includes:
(Emergency List courtesy of Butterfly Effects)
Be sure to update this list often and keep a PDF version of it on your computer and smartphone if you have one, so it can quickly and easily be circulated wherever you are and whenever you need it.
Register your child with the local police department. If they don't have a registry for people with Autism or those at risk of wandering, encourage them to start one.
Make sure your child's identity is always on him, using strategies like:
Dress your child in bright clothes, especially if you are going to be in a busy place. I always look for brightly colored swimsuits for Michael to make him more visible when we are at the beach.
Does your phone have a camera? If so, snap a quick picture of your child so that in the event that he goes missing, you'll know exactly what he was wearing on that day and will be able to share a current image with searchers immediately.
If your child has the skillset and cognitive ability to understand, teach him what to do in the event that he should become separated from you or his caregiver with the use of strategies including:
Statistics tell us that people with Autism are at a significantly greater risk of drowning than the general population. Teaching autistic people to swim can protect them from these odds. Many YMCAs offer swimming lessons especially for people with special needs. Enroll your child and reduce the risk.
There is a growing number of GPS-integrated devices on the market that can help locate a person who has wandered off. Hopefully, with further technological advances, these devices will become smaller, less expensive and more accessible to all individuals on the Autism Spectrum.
Thanks to AWAARE Collaboration, Butterfly Effects.com, Teresa Camille Kolu, Board Certified Behavior Analyst at Cusp Emergence, Lucile Hooton Lynch, Co-Owner and CEO of Steps4Kids, The National Autism Association and others mentioned above for their contributions to this blog.
June 1, 2013 Comments (2)