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Keeping Children with Autism Safe from Wandering and Elopement

It's a horrible feeling of dread. Your heart starts racing, your breathing gets faster, your stomach is in your throat, and panic starts to set in...

Guest blogger, Dr. Kelly Vinquist

Imagine for a moment, a mother in a store with her 5-year old son at the checkout counter. Her son is standing right next to her happily playing with his toy train. While mom is making her transaction with the clerk, her son wanders off. Now, imagine the sheer terror that the mother feels when she discovers her son is gone. Moments later, a security guard finds him wandering alone in the store parking lot and the two are reunited. The mother is relieved. Crisis averted. Scenarios like these are all too common for families who have children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Although for any parent, this would a scary situation. Children with an ASD often have limited verbal and social skills, making wandering and elopement (running away) a serious threat to their health and safety because of difficulties communicating important contact information or seeking appropriate assistance.

In a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, the authors gathered data on over 1,200 families who have children with an ASD. Of those families, nearly half of the children have wandered or eloped on at least one occasion since the age of 4. One out of four children had been gone long enough to cause concern. This is in comparison to only 13% of siblings without an ASD who have wandered off. The study, led by researchers from the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) also quantifies the risk of death and serious injury stating that, 65% of children who went missing had close calls with traffic and 24% were in danger of drowning.

Keeping Kids Safe
Dr. Kelly Vinquist, director of Trinity Services, Inc. Autism and Family Resource Center in New Lenox, IL states that wandering is a continued concern for the families they serve, whether this if for children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder or children with other developmental and learning concerns. She states that, overall, prevention is the key when it comes to running away and wandering. However, running away can occur even with multiple preventative strategies in place. She offers several general recommendations to help families address this issue. First, make sure your local first responders are aware that your child has an ASD and elopes. Make sure first responders have basic information about your child (how they communicate, preferred activities, things they find highly aversive, contact info for family). Second, explore various ways for your child to carry identifying information on them. Some examples can be temporary tattoos with contact information, and tags that can also be sown into clothing or attached to shoelaces. There are also several websites (e.g., www.awaare.org) that provide guidance for prevention and safety devices such as window and door alarms or yard fences.

“In terms of elopement,” Vinquist states, “we also have parents place signs on their home door or windows that warn people that a child in the home has an ASD and runs away. This helps visitors make sure they are cautious and watch the door.”

To address this problem, the Trinity Autism and Family Resource Center conducts one-on-one evaluations with families to find the right solution for them. The Center also offers free screenings for an ASD and assessments for other learning concerns, problem behavior elimination, social skills groups and other great resources to help families in need. For more information contact the Trinity Autism and Family Resource Center at 815-462-4ASD (4273).

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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