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“I just turned away for a second, he was right here!”, have said many parents in a panic when noticing their child was not in eyesight. This panic luckily is often only momentary, as the child usually reappears quickly. However, wandering by children, especially for those that have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), can be frequent and for the parent/caretaker this can be frightening. Wandering is one of the top safety concerns facing a child with ASD, however, it is not the only concern to keep in mind and prepare for. Creating a plan can be overwhelming and finding a starting point may be difficult. In hopes of helping, I have provided some useful ways to assist in your planning to keep your child safe, especially within your home.
Safety within the Home
The home can become a dangerous place for children, especially those with autism, who face greater challenges around safety, awareness of surroundings and impulsivity. Parents put security and precautionary measures in place when all children are young but it is necessary to maintain these measures longer when their child has ASD. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are creating your safety plan.
- Household Toxins – Cleaning products and related hazardous materials must be locked away in a secure place. As children are very crafty and persistent, it may be useful to lock the unsafe items in the garage, basement or any other area outside of the main living areas.
- Furniture – Top-heavy furniture and large electronics should be secured to the wall with brackets and straps. Toppling furniture from climbing children is extremely dangerous and can easily occur if these heavy items have not been secured properly.
- Drowning – If you or a neighbour has a swimming pool, it is necessary to ensure that drowning prevention measures have been put into place. As mentioned, with wandering being such a high concern, if a neighbour has a pool within close proximity to your home, you must communicate your concerns to your neighbours regarding the safety of your child and ask that the safety measures are put in place at their home. Some safety measures include fences with self-closing latches, as well as keeping interesting toys/items out of eyesight to not draw the child’s attention to the dangerous area. Since drowning poses a large risk, it is important to try and enroll your child in swimming and water safety lessons, the more tools your child has the greater their success. All municipalities have bylaws with regards to swimming pools in people’s backyards. Research what the laws are where you live to ensure that your pool (or your neighbour’s pool) is following the law.
- Fire – Fire safety is of the utmost importance and needs to be practiced with the whole family. As this training includes your child with ASD, you may need to modify and tweak your plan to work with any additional needs and sensory issues that your child may have. There are a few extra things that a parent can implement to help the process. For instance, if your child becomes upset by loud noises, you can purchase fire detectors that you can record your voice giving directions to leave the house, removing the loud noise trigger and providing familiarity through your voice. Additionally, since children with autism are more comfortable with routine and familiar places, it may be beneficial to take your child during a calm period to a local fire station so they may become familiar with the uniforms and equipment. The hope is that these measures will prepare and help your child better manage a real-life situation. Practicing fire drills at home in the same way they do at school will also be helpful for your child to become more comfortable if ever there was a real emergency.
- Hot Water – As many children with ASD also have sensory issues, some children cannot perceive hot or cold temperatures and this can lead to accidental burns. This can pose as a safety concern especially if they are using the faucet independently. Some ways to teach your child the difference between the taps both in the sink and in the shower/bath is through practicing turning them on and off. As well, another tool you can use is a sticker to symbolize the dangerous tap or area of the tap. You can also control the temperature of the water on your hot water tank.
- Doors – With wandering being a high concern, the use of locks may be advantageous however they may not be full-proof. As keys may be well hidden, there is still the chance that they may be found, therefore, an additional safeguard through the use of an alarm system may be beneficial. If your child does find a way to leave unsupervised, you need to be vigilant in ensuring that they are always wearing some form of identification that contains their contact and any other pertinent information.
As wandering is one of the main safety concerns facing many parents of autistic children, it is necessary to take steps to reduce or eliminate this risk.
Here are some ways to help keep your child safe from wandering:
- Understanding your child’s wandering triggers – Some children with ASD may wonder out of curiosity such as distractions from the park, train tracks, the beach – while other children wander to get out of a certain environment, such as ones that may be stressful, loud, bright, chaotic, etc. It’s important to know which type of wanderer your child may be to better understand how to avoid the behaviour.
- Keep your home secure – As mentioned previously, the security of your home is of the utmost importance in helping to eliminate wandering. Locking doors, hiding keys and setting up an alarm system are tools that can be used to help in securing your home.
- Keep practicing and modifying communication and behaviour strategies – Teaching your child to request to go somewhere can be a very functional replacement behaviour for wandering. Helping your child learn self-calming strategies to use when they find themselves in stressful, boring or frustrating situations will help in them self-regulate and can potentially avoid wandering. Through trial and error, you will be able to find what works best for your child in these particular situations.
- Setting expectations are important – All parents know how difficult it can be preparing and accomplishing an outing, it can be even more difficult for a parent of an autistic child. It is therefore imperative to outline and set your expectations with your child. You will need to communicate the plan, which can include approximate timelines and rules to be followed with your child and any other accompanying family members/caretakers. If everyone is on the same page and understands the expectations, the outing will likely be a more positive experience.
- Identification and monitoring technology are essential tools – Since many children with ASD are unable to easily communicate, these identification and monitoring tools are extremely helpful in tracking a wandering child. Having your child wear a form of identification (such as a bracelet/necklace, GPS, marked information on clothing, medical alert tags) will ensure that should your child get lost and be unable to communicate, all their relevant information (name, address, phone number, medical needs, etc.) is available to get them help.
The first step to help ease the worry around safety and a child with ASD is having an emergency safety plan in place. Evaluating and determining what your family needs to be safe and protected at home, school and the community will provide a helpful guide to protect your family for the dangers that exist. An example of an emergency safety plan can be found at family wandering emergency plan.
The checklist below will provide you with a practical starting point.
Safety Plan Checklist:
- You need to determine if your child wanders, runs away or gets lost in a crowd?
- You will need to evaluate areas such as home, school or community activities for safety concerns?
- Once areas of safety concerns have been reviewed, you will need to ensure that preventative measures have been put in place in all of those areas.
- You should purchase wearable identification containing important contact and medical information that will always be worn by your child.
- You should communicate with your neighbours and community that your child is autistic and may have special needs to be aware of (i.e. wandering).
- You should communicate with your child’s school to create a plan which ensures that safety skills are included in their Individual Education Program (IEP).
- You should communicate with the local emergency service providers and let them know that your child may be at risk at given times.
Remember, if your child should wander:
- Stay calm
- Call 911
- Search nearby Water first
- Implement your emergency safety plan