Concerns surrounding personal safety and risk are quite common among the autism community. So, just what can we do to increase security for kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and lower the risks? Parents and caregivers need to become proactive, make safety a part of their daily routine and plan a detailed response for a possible autism emergency. This article provides a set of tools to help keep kids with ASD safe.
- secure your home
- address the issue of wandering
- contact 911 call centers
- create an autism emergency contact form
- overlook the importance of identification
- neglect to alert your neighbors
- forget to keep records
- underestimate the need to make safety a part of your child’s daily routine
For many families, securing their home to prevent access to dangerous materials is the ﬁrst order of preparedness. These efforts include installing locking systems for cupboards, closets, appliances and utility rooms. The goal is to prevent access to the items of everyday households, such as medicines, cleaning materials, foods and beverages, lawn and garden products, tools, plug-in electronics, and, of course, ﬁrearms, knives, matches, lighters and other combustible materials.
A leading cause of concern is children who run away or wander from parents and caregivers. Tragically, children with ASD are often attracted to water sources, such as pools, ponds and lakes. In fact, drowning is a leading cause of death for a child who has ASD. Wandering also can lead to high-risk ﬁeld contacts with law enforcement or members of the general public.
Preparing for a wandering incident may seem extreme for some families. After all, their child has not wandered or bolted. Yet, for many other families, addressing wandering for the ﬁrst time can be the worst time.
Interior/exterior doors and windows are a favorite escape route for the child who is prone to bolting and wandering. Try using double key, chain and window locks; electronic alarms that alert to door or window openings; or personal tracking systems. However, you must remember that no solution is completely full-proof. What works for one child may not work for another.
Everyone considering home safety should consult with professional home security, burglar alarm, locksmith or home improvement companies that are familiar with 21st century technology developed to prevent emergencies.
In the U.S., some law enforcement, ﬁre rescue and emergency 911 call centers are willing and able to proactively place specific information into their database. Although not every system or agency is able to provide this service, it is certainly worthy of inquiring about.
If wandering is a concern, ask your local 911 call center to “red ﬂag” this information in their 911 computer database. When a call comes in for a response to Alzheimerʼs, autism or medically fragile families who participate, 911 telecommunicators alert the ﬁrst responder, before they arrive, with key information that you provided. When parents and caregivers provide law enforcement with information before an incident occurs, they can expect better responses.
When a wandering incident occurs, and you are listed in a 911 special needs database, be aware that the information is typically linked to your home to help assist during an emergency at your home. This information may not automatically transfer to identify a person who has wandered away from home and is now out in the community.
Consequently, before searching, it will be your responsibility to call 911 and inform them that a family member is missing and needs assistance in the community. Be ready and willing to provide information about the person who is missing to 911 telecommunicators or ﬁeld ofﬁcers. This can make a positive critical difference for the ﬁeld response.
This form should be developed, copied and carried with you at all times—at home, in your car, purse or wallet. Also circulate this handout to family members, trusted neighbors, friends and co-workers. The handout also will come in handy if you are in an area other than your neighborhood and are approached by the police.
The autism emergency contact form should include the following information:
- Name of child
- Current photograph and physical description, including height, weight, eye and hair color, any scars or other identifying marks
- Names, addresses and phone numbers (home, cell and pager) of parents and other caregivers/emergency contact persons
- Sensory, medical or dietary issues and requirements, if any
- Inclination for elopement and any atypical behaviors or characteristics that may attract attention
- Favorite attractions and locations where the child may be found
- Likes, dislikes, approach and de-escalation techniques
- Method of communication (non-verbal sign language, picture boards, written word)
- ID with any jewelry, tags on clothes or printed handout card
- Map and address guide to nearby properties with water sources and dangerous locations highlighted
- Blueprint or drawing of home, with bedrooms of individual highlighted
Some type of ID wear is essential for individuals with ASD, especially if they are non-verbal or unable to respond to questions about their identity when found. Examples include: a MedicAlert-style bracelet or necklace; jogger shoe tags; ID information laminated card attached to belt loops and belt, sewn into pants or sewn into jackets; a hangtag from zippers; or information silk screened into undergarments.
The problem with some of these items is that they can be removed by children with ASD, who have sensory issues. An innovative option is the use of prepared, washable, non-permanent tattoos that bear ID information. These can be found at www.tattooswithapurpose.com.
If ID wear is used, ﬁrst responders may not know much about autism. As a result, more speciﬁc language should be considered in addition to name, address and phone number, such as: “non-verbal; sensitive to light, sound or touch; possible seizure activity; and may not seek help.”
The behaviors and characteristics of ASD have the potential to attract attention from the public. Law enforcement professionals suggest that you reach out and get to know your neighbors. Decide what information to present to neighbors; plan a brief visit to see your neighbors; introduce your child; give your neighbor a simple handout with your name, address and phone number; and ask them to call you immediately if they see your son or daughter outside the home.
This approach is a good way to avoid problems down the road and will let your neighbors know the reason for unusual behaviors, know that you are approachable and have the opportunity to call you before they call 911. Being friendly with your neighbors can lead to better social interactions for your loved ones with ASD.
Always keep a record of your efforts to prevent anti-wandering. You may need to prove to authorities that you are not neglectful parents or caregivers. There may be little or no awareness of wandering and autism as an issue among the general public, law enforcement and social service professionals. Equating autism with Alzheimerʼs and dementia as a wandering population analogy can be a quick ﬁx for immediate understanding.
Learning to recognize that men and women in uniform are people you can go to–and stay with–during an emergency is a lesson we all learn. Kids with ASD can learn these lessons when we teach safety skills at home, reinforce them at school and practice them in the community. They are learned best when they are delivered early and often, and are suited to a child’s age and ability level.
Plan cross-educational opportunities for students with ASD and law enforcement professionals. Provide them in a safe, non-threatening environment. These opportunities can result in improved ﬁeld interactions and develop skills that will last throughout careers and lifetimes for both populations.
Students with ASD will learn that law enforcers in uniform are safe “go to” people in times of emergency. This can help demystify police in uniform, and teach that inside the uniform are good people, who are also neighbors and friends. Law enforcers who have basic training about autism can learn for themselves when to use the specialized autism-related tactics they learned during training. Most importantly, police ofﬁcers will get the opportunity to meet children who have ASD that live in their community.
Best of all, the initial contact will be in a safe, relaxed and controlled environment, not during the oftentimes emotionally charged atmosphere of a sudden ﬁeld contact.
As adults, we practice our risk management skills every time we lock a door or put on a car seat belt. Taking these precautions becomes part of our daily routine. While developing the resiliency to address the risks of ASD and make safety part of our daily routines may not stop an emergency from happening—it becomes our best defense when one does occur. Remember the importance of being proactive.