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It’s a parent’s worst fear. The moment that you realize your child is missing and you cannot find them. Even if it happens for only seconds, your heart starts racing and the worst thoughts begin to enter your mind.
This happens to many parents, however, when you are a parent of an autistic or special needs child, there is an even higher risk of wandering.
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Autism and Wandering
Wandering or Elopement is a common occurrence with children that have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In fact, according to the National Autism Association, “48% of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings.”
Why Does My Autistic Child Wander?
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are often very impulsive and can wander from a safe setting for several different reasons. Here are some of the most common reasons your autistic child may bolt or wander away:
- exploring something of interest – (toys, water, playground)
- to get away from a situation or environment that is stressful – (loud noises, commotion, or bright lights)
- seeking sensory input (water, noise, etc.)
- to be chased
- running feels good
- sense of control
- anxiety or frustration
Do High-Functioning Autistic Children Wander?
There is a common misconception about high-functioning autism and how it affects the individuals that are diagnosed with it. This is that someone with high-functioning autism has fewer difficulties or mild symptoms of autism compared to those with severe autism.
Now to dive just a bit deeper. There is a huge spectrum or map of Autism Spectrum Disorder and anyone diagnosed with it can be anywhere on it.
The biggest difference between high-functioning autism and other types of autism is intellectual development. For example, people with high-functioning autism are often very smart and can pass as typical even though inside they are struggling with social, emotional, and often behavioral difficulties.
So to go back to the original question – Do high-functioning autistic children wander? In a short answer YES!
It doesn’t really matter where on the autism spectrum the child is. It often has more to do with their personality.
Dangers of Autistic Children Wandering
It’s truly any parent’s worst nightmare to look up and realize that your child is not next to you. But when you have a child who is autistic, they are often not as aware of the dangers around them as other children.
Wandering aimlessly and bolting away from a safe place has led to many injuries and even death of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
And drowning is the cause of death for almost 3 in 4 children with autism who wander off alone. Other terrifying things that can happen from an autistic child running off are being hit by a car or being abducted.
How Can I Prevent My Autistic Child From Wandering?
When my oldest child began bolting in public and making me chase after her, I was completely overwhelmed. I remember thinking that if I wasn’t holding onto her at all times, she would run away.
It was truly scary and stressful.
Now a few years later, I have two autistic children and my youngest is the main one that runs away from me in public. So I had to start learning new ways to keep him from taking off and instead, staying next to me while we are out of the house.
1. Know Wandering Triggers
One of the most powerful ways you can prevent your autistic child from wandering in public is by understanding your child’s triggers.
As I said before every autistic child may have different reasons for running away from you while out of the house, but by learning what might trigger them to run away you can start to see patterns and know what to expect when you see your child acting a certain way.
So if your child gets overwhelmed by loud noises or sees something he or she is attracted to, try to be aware of their surroundings so you can learn how they will react in each situation.
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2. Talk With Your Team
When you have an autistic child or any child with special needs, it takes a lot of people to come together to help them be successful in their everyday life.
So if your child has started to elope or run away from you in public, take time to talk with everyone who will be with your child with or without you present. This includes your child’s pediatrician, therapist, teacher, school, and family.
Go over different steps you want to take to ensure your child’s safety and be clear about what needs to be done to prevent your child from running off.
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3. Teach Basic Safety Rules
Everyone is human and sometimes things just happen that are out of our control. This is why you should always try your best to teach your child about safety rules in a way they can understand.
Now, of course, not every autistic child may understand the importance of safety, but if your child can, it’s a good idea to start teaching them now.
Some basic, things I have tried to teach both of my autistic children are the importance of looking both ways before crossing a street and not talking or going with strangers.
Another great resource for teaching your child about safety is the National Autism Association’s Big Red Safety Box which is filled with tons of information and tips for teaching your autistic child about safety.
4. Set Expectations
Another great tip that I have learned is to always set expectations before going out.
By communicating to your child about where you are going and the rules they need to follow you can set boundaries in place and this gives them a plan to follow.
So if you are running to a grocery store tell your child where you are going and for how long. Try to keep them interested in what you are doing and remind them of how they need to behave while in the grocery store. You can also give them small tasks to do to keep them busy.
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5. Handicap Parking Permit
Did you know that there are many states that will allow autism families to get a handicapped parking permit?
Now I know you may be thinking – “My child can walk. Why do I need a handicapped permit?”
Having a handicapped permit comes in handy for families who have autistic children that like to run away and allows a family to park closer to help prevent their child from running off in the parking lot. Another great benefit of being able to park very close is for those moments where you have to carry your autistic child out during meltdowns.
All you have to do is look at your states’ rules and regulations to see if they will allow you to get a parking permit. You may also need a note from your child’s pediatrician and then simply apply.
6. Holding Hands When Out of House
Adult supervision is one of the most important parts of keeping your child with autism from running off, but since we are human, we all have a moment where we may look down or not notice if our child slips away quickly.
This is important to keep your child right next to you at all times. One great way to do this is by always holding your child’s hand when you are walking out into public.
What can I do when my autistic child won’t hold my hand or my hands are full?
When your child will not hold your hand or you cannot hold onto them every second, the next best thing is having a harness and tether system.
Now I know you’ve seen those cute little backpacks that little toddlers wear with the tether attached so they won’t wander off from their parents. This is basically the same thing but a little more sturdy.
And I know some people don’t like the idea of putting their kids on a leash but in many cases, it’s either a parent does that or have their child run out into a busy street. It’s really all about being safe and having peace of mind.
8. Teach Your Child to Walk Next to You
Some children with autism learn to stop running away and can be taught to walk next to you in public. For example, my oldest child now understands the dangers of running away and stays next to me when we are out in public.
Of course, this took years of working with her, but it has taken a huge weight off of my shoulders now that she has learned how to stay with me.
9. Wearable GPS
Another great tool that has become popular is a wearable GPS for parents to find their children if they have run away from them.
This has become very useful since more than 1/3 of the children who have autism cannot tell anyone their information such as their name, phone number or address having a GPS device helps parents locate their child.
10. Identification Jewelry
Along with having a GPS another tool for helping your child to be identified is through identification jewelry.
These types of wearable identification are helpful if your child gets lost, or if you are in a car accident and you are not responsive or able to tell a first responder that your child may run away from them.
My favorite types of identification jewelry are these Reminderbands where you can put any information that may be needed to help someone identify your child – such as their name the fact that they have autism, whether they are verbal or non-verbal and a contact phone number.
Who Wants a Giveaway?
Reminderband has been so gracious to work with me and offer to send two lucky winners some wristbands of their choice. They can have (1) Reminderband Custom Luxe Silicone Wristband with your own customized message or a four-pack of the autism awareness set.
The sizes come in a medium that fits wrists 17-19 cm (most women and children) or large which fits wrists 19-21 cm (most men over 180 pounds).