According to research done published in the Journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics, nearly half of children with autism are at risk of wandering or eloping from their present, safe environment. Children with autism go missing under a variety of circumstances. They may seek out small or enclosed spaces. They may wander toward places of special interest or may try to escape overwhelming stimuli such as sights, sounds, surroundings or activities of others (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2015). Sadly, with the spike in stories of individuals with autism going missing in the past year, we’ve come to realise that many children with autism are not emphasized with safety skills as part of their integral curriculum enough.
Here are a few things to remember when your child with autism gets lost:
Once you’ve realised that you’ve lost your child, immediately check for water. Children with autism often are highly attracted to water. Hence, responders and search teams very often immediately check all nearby bodies of water including streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, creeks, basins and swimming pools.
Other dangerous situations may include:
- Heavy equipment.
- Fire trucks.
- Roadway signs.
- Bright lights.
- Traffic signals.
- Consider connecting your child with an GPS tracker whether it be on a mobile phone or a watch. In the unlikely event your child does go missing, you can flip your tracker on to locate their whereabouts.
- Make sure your child knows their name and parent’s phone number by heart. Also ensure that they know basic conversations to express that they are lost. Twigtale has prepared a sample social story to teach your child basic safety tips of staying with an adult and personal information that can reunite them with their parents/ carers.
Tips for your child when they get lost
ABA-based techniques, according to research, are very helpful in teaching children with autism to seek assistance when lost (Bergstrom, Najodwski, & Tarbox, 2012). Here are some tips of doing so:
- Tell your child what to do when they are lost (e.g.: yell “Mom!” or “Dad!” or go to a worker and tell them “I’m lost!”).
- If your child is non-verbal, techniques such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) can be adapted to help them express they are lost.
- Break down the rules or explanations into simple steps (e.g.: “When I am out, I have to stay close to mummy and daddy. Staying close to mummy and daddy keeps me safe”).
- Model how to follow the rules to them (e.g.: Act it out, video model)
- Role play the follow rules (e.g.: Stop and stay; stay out of water without an adult, yell “Help!”, etc.)
- When your child follows the rules, deliver a reinforcement.
- Set up lots of opportunities to practice the rules in a natural environment.
Rules to teach your child
Here are a few examples of rules you can teach your child (Autism Speaks, 2015):
- Here are the big three: STAY CALM, STAY PUT, MAKE NOISE.
- Do not panic.
- Stop where you are and try to remember your route.
- Re-think your steps.
- Do you remember any of the buildings, signs, houses?
- If available, use your cell phone to call 911 or home.
- Have identification available.
- Ensure you have the Autism Introduction Card (e.g., My name is David and I have Autism).
- Look for a police car or a law enforcement officer.
- Ensure the cell phone has the GPS mechanism activated.
- If you are lost in a mall or shopping center, look for security or ask a clerk for help.
- Ensure you have a small LED flashlight available at all times while traveling/walking.
- Learn the positioning of the sun to determine approximate time/direction.
Autism Speaks (2015). Asking for help. Retrieved from: https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/autism-safety-project/community/asking-for-help
Bergstrom, R., Najodwski, A. C. & Tarbox, J. (2012). Teaching children with autism to seek help when lost in public. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 191-195.
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (2015). Autism and wandering. Retrieved from: http://www.missingkids.com/autism