Thursday, October 18, 2012

Safety Tips for Children with Autism Who Wander

Resident Psychiatrist and Research Assistant, Emory & Marcus Autism Centers

With 1 in 88 children in the United States having autism, an increasing number of parents and caregivers face the challenges of caring for an autistic child. One of the most difficult areas is dealing with a child who repeatedly wanders away. This can be particularly dangerous for children with autism, as they may have little understanding of their own safety and have a limited ability to communicate to others for help.

Close to half of children with autism have attempted to wander away from a safe situation, and many parents report "near misses" that could have easily resulted in their child drowning or being injured by a vehicle. Sadly, injuries to children with autism are all too common.

In this post, I'll share several ways to help keep your child with autism safe when dealing with wandering behavior.

Understand what causes your child to wander away
This is much easier said than done! Look for subtle clues in their environment. Is the wandering / running aimed at going towards something your child is interested in, like a toy or place; or is your child escaping from situations like a room with many people, a loud TV, or something which is unfamiliar to them? Also look at the response of other people to the behavior -- if wandering / running away results in your child getting something he or she wants, like a candy bar, then this "rewarding" may cause the behavior to happen again.

Increase awareness and identification
Other family members and neighbors should know to get help if they see your unaccompanied child wandering. Some parents give their children medical ID bracelets or plastic wristbands with their child's information and condition. Parents may also use monitoring devices for their child like a personal GPS tracking device.

Keep the house safe
Many parents invest in extra locks and safety latches for the house. Some install window locks and have fencing around their yards. Especially important, because of the risk of drowning, pools and other water containing structures should be fenced or emptied if possible.

Talk to the school and local police
Make school staff aware of your child's risk for wandering or running away so they can keep a closer eye on your child. If possible, attend field trips or make a special plan with the school. Informing local police about your child's condition makes it easier for them to take action if they see him or her walking around unaccompanied. You should carry around a recent photo of your child and pay close attention to what your child is wearing on a daily basis in case you need to describe his or her clothing to a third party.

Sleep is important too
Parents often worry about what could happen to their child when they are asleep. This may be a bigger problem if their child is staying awake during the night. Decreasing the amount of caffeine your child drinks can help. Setting a sleep routine and avoiding daytime napping may also be useful. Sleeping disorders are common among children with autism. If your child's sleep continues to be a problem, talk to your family doctor or see a specialist.

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