According to the National Autism Association (2016) approximately 48% of children on the autism spectrum attempt to elope (wander) from a safe environment. Many of these children are unable to effectively communicate their names or addresses. We’ve all heard the sad stories of children who wander away and end up in very dangerous and sometimes sad situations. My son has a fascination with water and he loves to run. We try to always have at least one pair of eyes on him. But, it’s nearly impossible to watch a kid every second. What’s a parent to do?
Keeping the Doors Locked
In our house, there are 3 possible exits. The front door, the garage, and the sliding glass door in the back. When we are in the house, we keep a chain on the front door. Right now, it’s too high for our son to reach. We keep the sliding glass door in the back locked as well, and there is a stick in the door which he hasn’t figured out yet. Recently our little Houdini figured out the little twist lock on the door that leads to the garage. My wife quickly disabled the big garage door so he couldn’t get out, but it gave us quite a scare. A few days later, I went out and got a gate style lock and put it up high so he couldn’t reach that one. Still, I see him watching us each time we open one of those locks. I can see the gears turning, we are going to have to come up with some new strategies as he grows. Keeping things out of reach won’t work forever.
What Happens if Your Child Does Get Out?
So, let’s say the worst happens and your child gets out of the house. Now what? Will he or she be able to tell a police officer their name or where they live? Will your child speak to a stranger? Will your neighbors understand how serious the situation is if they see your son or daughter strolling through the neighborhood without you?
There are a few options to consider. There are ID bracelets like the ones sold at www.roadid.com. These are wearable IDs that can provide basic information about your child to authorities, medical personnel, or neighbors. It’s a nonintrusive way to identify your child. There are also wearable tracking devices. Many of these devices look and feel like a watch or fitness tracker. They include features like out of bounds alerts and some even operate as a phone. The price range on these varies widely. This blog: 10 Wearable GPS Devices for Kids by Caroline Maurer give the pros and cons of a sample of these locators.
Talk to Your Neighbors
These days, most of us to not engage in meaningful conversation with our neighbors. Maybe we are too busy. Maybe we’re weary of others. Whatever the reason, I ask you to put that aside for now. Letting your neighbors know that you have a child with special needs who may wander could save your child’s life. My neighborhood is full of children. I see them going up and down the street on bikes and scooters. I never give it a second thought, even when some of the smaller ones are not with a parent. But, if I knew that a certain child had special needs, an alarm bell would go off if I saw him wandering down the road alone. Emily Iland takes this a step further in her article: 7 Safety Strategies for Kids with Special Needs suggesting that we print a google map of our neighborhood. I love this idea. Every second can make a difference if your child disappears, having a printout can save your precious time should you have to do a search.
Safety in the Car
My son recently went from a traditional car seat to a booster seat. This means no more 5-point harness. It only took him 30 seconds to realize he could unclip his seat belt to set himself free. This has caused us some serious anxiety when it’s time to drive the little guy to school. Some children with special needs are not able to understand why they need to wear a seat belt. To them it merely represents unnecessary restraint and discomfort. So, what do you do?
Try to make it fun and routine for them
Make buckling into the seatbelt and a fun part of the routine by singing a song that your child likes, or making a big display of putting your own safety belt on. If your child has siblings, this is a good time to get them involved. Everyone can sing the silly song and make a show of strapping in. We have found that our son does best when someone is sitting in the seat next to him. There are times when he is in the car alone with only one adult. In those situations, we usually opt for distraction. He is strongly motivated by electronics like the phone or iPad. So, to keep him in his seatbelt, we will allow him to use those devices in the car.
Seatbelt Locks and Other Products
If you have a child that refuses to wear their seat belt in a vehicle, there are some tools that can help. A simple google search will reveal 5-point harness seats for kids up to 105 lbs. There are also seat belt locks which make it more difficult for a child to release the seat belt. Many of these can be purchased for under $20 on Amazon.com. For the difficult cases, there are full harnesses. From my brief research, these items require some extra work to install, but they are highly effective.
Connect with Others
Above all, you must be aware of safety issues. Research solutions. Educate yourself continually on the products and strategies that exist to help you as a parent of a special needs child. Don’t isolate yourself. My wife and I have found that the more we are involved in our community the more people we find who have children with special needs. Each person we meet as a new tip or piece of the puzzle we may have missed if we chose to avoid going out. The safest thing you can do is connect with others. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and offer your own insights. You may have the answer to your neighbor’s safety problem.