A few hallmark symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include impulsive behavior and a lack of fear. These two symptoms together pose issues when keeping children with autism safe. Many times they fail to see how a situation is potentially dangerous. The biggest worry for parents of children with autism is how to keep their child safe while away from the home.
Some common potentially dangerous situations include wandering and what’s referred to as “bolting” (spontaneously sprinting away to avoid a sensory trigger or uncomfortable situation). Both wandering and bolting can lead to dangerous situations that include drowning and running in front of traffic.
According to Psychology Today, 48% of children with autism run from a safe environment. Of the deaths associated with children with autism under the age of 14, 91% of deaths were the result of drowning related to wandering/bolting. The overall rate of wandering from safe environments for children with autism is nearly four times higher than that of their neurotypical siblings.
As a parent with a child with autism, these statistics terrify me! I’m not stating these statistics to scare you, but they need to be known because there is a real potential danger associated with autism symptoms and wandering/bolting behavior. So what can you do to protect your child in social situations or while you are away from home?
6 Safety tips while away from home
1. Have a safety plan in place
A safety plan is an “in case” of an emergency plan that includes who to contact and what to do if your child separates from you at any time. The best way to include a safety plan while away from home is to keep a list of your child’s emergency contacts in the car wherever you go. Some emergency contacts to include in your child’s safety plan include…
- Extended family members
- School personnel
- Law enforcement
All these contacts are important for helping to locate your child again and to keep him/her safe. Along with keeping these important contacts on you at all times, here is some more information to consider adding to your child’s safety plan:
- A list of nearby places your child is likely to wander to such as nearby lakes
- A paper summarizing your child’s diagnosis; his/her physical description with identifying marks; medical needs; behaviors
- A list of 3 to 5 people designated as “searchers” to help search for your child if he/she wanders off
- A checklist that includes what measures to take as soon as your child goes missing (this gives you precise steps on what actions to take to locate your child)
2. Know your child’s triggers
If your child has sensory issues related to his/her autism, stay in tune with your child’s “triggers.” Sensory triggers are sounds, lights, and/or situations that cause your child extreme anxiousness to the point where he/she wants to bolt. For many children with sensory processing disorder, triggers do change over time.
My son gets overwhelmed in parking lots and attempts to bolt when loud trucks go through a parking lot. This causes him a lot of distress. Because I know parking lots and loud trucks are a trigger for him, I am on my guard and I’m expecting him to bolt. This helps me to prevent him from bolting in the future because I already know it is a very likely outcome to that situation.
3. Think bright colors
This is a safety measure I imply with my son when we leave the house. I purposefully pick t-shirts that are brightly colored. Why? Because if my son bolts or wanders off I can recognize him faster with a bright colored shirt on! Trust me, this works!
If you have a child that bolts in public, think about having your child wear neon yellow, orange, pink, or a bright blue to recognize your child in a crowd faster!
4. Have an extra set of eyes
While this is not always a possibility, it’s sometimes best to have another adult keep you company on family outings. This provides an extra set of eyes to keep your child safe in case of wandering or bolting. Instead of just you and your child’s siblings, go to the store with your husband or wife, family friend, or family member.
The more supervision you have on your child in stressful situations, the less likely your child is to be in danger from wandering or bolting.
5. Apply preventative measures
There are things you can do to prevent wandering behavior in social situations. One preventative measure I’ve taken with my son is buying a wrist lock. A wrist lock attaches to the wrist of my son and the other end of the cable is worn on my wrist. This not only prevents wandering, but it also keeps him within a safe distance of me while allowing him some independence.
Two other preventative measures you can take to deter wandering or bolting are:
- A chest harness
- GPS trackers (they have ones that attach to your child’s shoe lace)
6. Invest in a medical alert bracelet
As many as 40% of children on the autism spectrum are nonverbal. If your child wanders or bolt and is nonverbal, he/she is unable to give their name, phone number, or other vital information to get help from medical personnel and law enforcement.
The best way to solve this issue in case of an emergency is with a medical alert bracelet. On your child’s medical alert bracelet or necklace, you need the following information:
- Your child’s name
- Your child’s diagnosis (if your child is nonverbal, state “nonverbal autism”)
- Contact information (your phone number)
- Allergies and other conditions (if any)
I will admit it is difficult getting your child used to wearing a bracelet or necklace. But I followed my son’s interests by purchasing a medical alert bracelet with cars on it. That way I’m assured he will want to wear it. To help him become accustomed to it, I set a timer for short periods for him to wear it. After the timer goes off, I take off the bracelet and reward him with an M&M candy for not taking it off. Now he wears it every time we leave the house without an issue!
Even if your child has never wandered or bolted before, it’s still important to create a safety plan in case of an emergency. Especially if your child is nonverbal or has trouble answering vital information in any way.
If your child does wander, there are small things you can do to ensure he/she cannot bolt. I know the thought of your child in dangerous situations due to wandering or bolting behavior is terrifying. But the more you prepare, the better you will be able to handle an emergency just in case.
This is a contributed post and therefore may not represent the views and opinions of this blog or its author.