My Max has always been a little escape artist. His first word was “go” which came long before “mama,” “daddy,” or even “milk”. We would catch him trying to trying to climb over his crib rails as early as nine months in an attempt to go exploring. And once he could walk it wasn’t long before he was wandering away from us. One of the first times Max wandered away was shortly after his diagnosis of autism. We were in a large hardware store. My husband went one way to look for something and I went another way with Max. I stooped down to get an item on a lower shelf and by the time I got up Max was gone. My panic was immediate. Max had an extremely limited ability to communicate and like many young children who have autism, was oblivious to danger. My heart was in my throat when I found my husband and told him that Max had wandered away in the store. We asked the clerk if she had seen him and she had not. We ran through the entire store and finally paused near the entrance. There was Max standing on the floor pads giggling as he made the sliding doors open and close. I scooped up his little body in relief!
In the years following that first experience we would have more scares as Max would attempt to wander from our sight. I remember meeting another mom who had a boy with autism who was a lot like Max. She told me the story of the interesting way she got to meet one of her new neighbors after a move. On the evening after they had moved into their new home everyone was exhausted and went to bed with the exception of her son. Her son, unbeknownst to them, had gotten out of bed and slipped out of the house and began wandering around the neighborhood. He spied a light on in one of the neighbor’s windows and a computer. This woman’s child loved computers. Amazingly the door to this particular home was open and the boy went inside and began to play on the computer. Did I also tell you that he was in his underwear and had no shoes on his feet? The woman’s new neighbor was an elderly woman who found this young man sitting at her computer in his underwear. Now here is the other amazing part of this story. The neighbor just happened to have been a retired special education teacher and recognized that this boy had autism. She quickly ascertained that he probably belonged to the family who just moved in a few doors down. The kindly neighbor walked him home and they were greeted by a very surprised and mortified family all in their pajamas.
I am sure many parents of autistic children have their own tales of wandering episodes. In some cases these stories make the news such as the case of nine-year-old Robert Wood Jr. who was found after six days of being lost in the Virginia woods. It was viewed as a miracle by some that this severely autistic and mute little boy was still alive after so much time had passed. It is always an extremely frightening thought that your child could potentially wander away. For those parents who have a child with autism who has a tendency to wander there are things you can do to keep your child safe.
Ways to Prevent Wandering
• Latches and locks
One of the first steps we took to keep our son from leaving the home was to put high latch locks on our doors. It soon became evident, however, that he understood how these latches worked and how to climb onto a chair to open such locks. The latches did slow him down some, however.
• Door alarms
This was our next attempt after the locks only slowed Max down. We ended up buying one of those inexpensive door alarms that you stick onto the door and frame and makes a sound like you might hear when you enter a store. This has been the most effective strategy for us for many years as we can hear if Max attempts to open the front door. Before our purchase of the door alarm we made do for awhile with bells on the doorknob. But the problem with the bells is that they could easily be removed.
• Teaching communication skills
If you have a child who is semi-verbal you can try to teach your child simple communication such as the word, “out” for when they desire to go outside. If your child is not verbal, you can try using a picture exchange system of placing a picture symbol of “out” with Velcro near your door. When your child wants to go out they hand you the picture to communicate their need. For many children with autism these attempts will not be enough to keep them safe.
• GPS Tracking Devices
If you do a search for autism and GPS tracking you are going to come up with a long list of products designed to keep your loved one safe. Some look like bracelets and some look similar to a watch that the child wears on their wrist. These tracking devices are not inexpensive and you can expect to pay over a hundred dollars for most GPS trackers.
• A service dog
Another option some parents consider is to get a service dog for their child with autism. This is a dog that is specially trained to work with your child. Along with helping your child to develop a special friendship and bond, a service dog can be taught to keep your child out of danger and alert caregivers if your child tries to bolt. Some service dogs can even be trained to sniff out gluten for those children with gluten intolerance.
For more information about how to prevent wandering in children who have autism there is an excellent resource developed by the National Autism Association in a brochure called the Autism Safety-Tool Kit. This brochure provides many additional tips on how to keep your child safe.
We would love to hear from you now. Do you have a child who wanders? What tips or suggestions do you have for other parents who are worried about their child’s safety? We value your input and experience.
You can read more about Max and Me on our blog: The Autism Express