It’s every caregiver’s nightmare: Someone goes wandering off. Then a search is mounted.
For caregivers of autistic kids and adults, their tendency to wander can be worrisome.
Nearly one-third of reported Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) missing person cases related to wandering/elopement from 2011 to 2016 in the United States ended in death or required medical attention, according to a 2017 National Autism Association study. The study was based on more than 800 media-reported missing person cases in the U.S. involving people with ASD.
An attraction to water seems to pose a high risk. Accidental drowning was responsible for more than 70 percent of lethal outcomes, followed by fatal traffic injury (18 percent).
At the time of elopement, nearly half (45 percent) of the individuals were under some sort of non-parent supervision. Times of transition, commotion, and stress were associated with increased risk of elopement. And those who were upset or agitated tended to show a higher risk of abruptly going into traffic or other high-risk situations.
Precautions to keep individuals safe
What can parents, guardians, and caretakers do to prevent such needless deaths of individuals with ASD who might be prone to elopement?
What follows are some tips from AWAARE: Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Coalition:
Be aware of bodies of water near places the individual frequents.
Talk to those closest to the individual in your care. This includes neighbors, teachers, friends, and extended family. Anyone who might be near your family member when he or she wanders away may turn out to be the first person who can help find him or her quickly. Tell these people what your family member is attracted to or scared of, as this information could turn out to be valuable clues if the person goes missing.
Teach the individual to swim. Many YMCA locations offer swimming lessons for people with special needs. The final lesson should be with clothes on, according to AWAARE. Just realize that teaching a family member to swim does not mean he or she will be safe in water. If you or your neighbors own a pool, put a fence around it. Let your neighbors know about your family member’s tendency to wander and the need to take safety precautions. And remove toys or anything that might be of interest from the pool when it’s not in use.
Give the individual a medical ID bracelet to wear. Of those autistic people who wander, many may be nonverbal. So, they would likely not be able to communicate with those searching for them. The ID bracelet should include your name, telephone number, and any other critical information. For example, it might state that your family member has autism and is non-verbal. If the individual refuses to wear a bracelet or necklace, consider a temporary tattoo with your contact information.
Consider putting a tracking device on the individual. Check with local law enforcement for Project Lifesaver or LoJak SafetyNet services. These tracking devices may be worn on the wrist or ankle and can locate the individual via radio frequency. GPS tracking systems are also available.
Keep an especially close eye on the individual when you observe agitation or someone is upset. These are the times a person with ASD is particularly at risk of engaging in risky wandering behaviors.
Alert first responders before anything happens: According to AWAARE, preparing first responders with key information before an incident occurs can improve response. Create an informational handout including all pertinent information. Caregivers should carry these at all times. Give the handout to family, neighbors, friends, and co-workers, and first responders.
Taking steps now could either prevent the wandering or at least lay the groundwork for more easily locating a missing person.
For neighbor alert form, safety tips, an autism elopement alert form, and more, visit https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/2018-08/Safety%20Forms.pdf.