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Watching the news, I have noticed a very dangerous trend among the autism community – precarious situations or even death due to children wandering out of safety and into risky environments.

Upon further research, I noticed that wandering is a common tendency with individuals with a variety of special needs. Whether a child is overwhelmed and seeking the solitude of a calming waterway or a child is wandering to find their home, a wandering child typically is not prepared for the potential risks.

They may be traveling in a busy city without concern for the safety of crossing streets, avoiding cars or construction zones. Perhaps they are wandering in a more rural setting and are not prepared for precarious water areas or unmarked trails. Their potential lack of fear can also lead community members not to notice the danger they might be entering.

Once in an unsafe situation, many of these children don’t seek the help of strangers or cannot verbally respond to rescuers in pursuit of them. Therefore, taking time and energy to eliminate or reduce these impending situations can help create a safer environment for all involved.

Following are a couple of frightening statistics on this topic:

  • Roughly half, 49%, of children with autism attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their “typical” siblings
  • More than one third of children with autism who wander are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address or phone number

Here are 10 strategies to help safeguard your wandering or “eloping” child for back-to-school:

Figure Out the Causes for Wandering

Analyzing this piece of the puzzle can help you reduce potential wandering instances. With hindsight, rethink past incidences and consider if your child was avoiding something or seeking something.

Create an environment where areas of “fixation” are eliminated or instances of avoidance are safeguarded properly.

Meet with School Staff

Prior to attending school and/or during the annual IEP meeting, confirm “potential wandering” is noted as a high priority issue.

Download this “elopement alert form” and submit this completed form to ANY staff member (including custodial and kitchen workers) who will come in contact with your child. The more staff members are “on alert” for potential wandering instances, the better the chance for your child to stay safe.

School Campus Inspection & Walk Through 

Take the time to survey the campus prior to the beginning of the school year. Note any unsafe escape routes that might need to be addressed. Many middle and high school campuses are very “open” physically and this might need to be addressed.

I have had several students who have eloped from all 3 levels of schools.

One hopped a chain linked fence. She was non-verbal, but wearing her school t-shirt which alerted a concerned citizen to call the police.

Another student simply walked off a middle school campus into a park and relaxed on the playground equipment.

Other students have actually fled their campus and entered into a private home.

One student actually escaped a middle school and tried to run miles home.

These are all instances I have heard personally. Even with the best intentions of families and school staff, elopers can be very stealth and fast.

Offer a Classroom Alert System

Bolting doors at school may not be possible. It might be worthwhile to discuss with the classroom teacher installing an inexpensive motion alarm on the classroom exit door which will alert the teacher when anyone passes that threshold. I have worked in many classrooms where this would have come in handy.

Identify Your Student

There are so many ways for your child to carry identification. It’s worth researching what options work for your child. ID jewelry, tags sewn into clothing, carrying a wallet or wearing temporary tattoos are just a few.  For many non-verbal individuals, this will be their voice in an emergency.

Identify Your School & Teach Basic Address/Phone 

One of the easiest ways to identify your child in the community is to have him wear a shirt which notes the school he attends. If the school requires uniforms, this will be easy!

Contact Local Law Enforcement

Meet with your local police chief to review your “elopement alert form” and include a current photo of your child. If possible, bring your child with you to the station for more personal understanding of the potential risks.

Alert Neighbors

Take time to communicate with your neighbors; so that they are part of your team who are attentively on alert for your child’s safety. It takes a village to save an eloper!

Teach Your Child to Swim 

Let’s face it, even with your best intentions and precautions, your child may wander and get into an unsafe water scenario. If your child is skilled at swimming, drowning is less likely.

Require the Staff to Contact You Immediately if Child Wanders

Without assigning fault, make sure that the school notifies you immediately during any wandering incident so that you can join the search team. Your child might be more inclined to respond to your voice rather than a staff member.

Taking these precautions should provide more peace of mind for families once school begins. Make an effort to continue to remind campus staff about the potential dangers to keep your child safe while at school. Let them know you appreciate their partnership in this endeavor.