When Your Child Wanders…

When Justin was in first grade the principal had a strict policy of no parents walking their children into the classroom. (More about that inane rule and how I combated it in another post…) But for that portion of the year I was entering the school with him and saying goodbye just before he turned the corner to head to class.

One morning I dropped him off, business as usual. At that time, I would typically turn right out of the parking lot and head to work; however that day I realized I forgot my lunch AND needed to get gas in the car. I drove back home and then past the school once again toward the gas station. The bell had rung and school was in session. About six blocks past the school I saw a small child with a backpack casually walking down the street. My heart sank as I realized it was MY child.

When I pulled over and brought him back to school they had no concern whatsoever that he hadn’t made it to class – they simply thought he was out sick that day. I went over and over in my head the scenarios that COULD HAVE played out if I hadn’t forgotten my lunch and needed gas that day. The thought of the myriad possible outcomes were magnified by the realization that I would not have even found out he was missing until I went to pick him up at the end of the work day.

Another time, he was playing with the garden hose outside in the front yard. This was a normal activity for him, and I always peeked out the window frequently to check on him. On this particular day, I blinked and he disappeared. Gone. No shirt, wet pants, and no shoes… vanished.

I immediately grabbed his sister and her best friend and started screaming his name while walking up and down our dead end block. Some neighbors heard my panicked shouts and offered to drive the vicinity and look for him. A thousand thoughts were racing through my head as I searched every nook and cranny of the woods, front and back yard, inside the house several times (maybe he’s just hiding, oh please God let him be hiding), and down several neighboring blocks.

I called the police. Being in the Fire Department I heard my own call go over the scanner and it really hit me. My baby is lost. What have I done? How could this have happened? It was just a few minutes…

I will never forget the feelings that washed over me as I saw my neighbor driving up with Justin in the front seat. Tears welled up as I experienced every possible human emotion simultaneously, hugging him tighter than I ever have. I was able to cancel the police call and take my little angel home to dry off.

He had no explanation for why he left the yard or where he was going. These two experiences absolutely changed my perspective about Autism and wandering.

How do you minimize the risk?

I know how lucky I am that my son is still with me today. That is part of what drives me to train Emergency Responders. However, you must assume that police and fire currently have no knowledge or Autism training and take preventative measures. Here are some practical steps you can take so you don’t have to go through what I did:

1. Safety-proof your home. Home should be a safe haven. In addition to traditional childproofing for small children, you will have to take some extra measures for your child with Autism.

2. Install door alarms. Many children with Autism are prone to wandering. Alarms offer great back up protection. You also may want to consider a personal GPS device for your child.

3. Carry an Autism Emergency ID Card. Emergency ID cards will help people on the scene of an emergency know how to approach and communicate with your child. Include contact information and important behavioral traits of your child.

4. Have your child wear an Emergency ID Tag. In addition to ID cards, tags are another great way to get the attention of emergency responders. If your child cannot tolerate wearing tags around their neck or wrists (if sensory and tactile issues are present), try attaching them to your child’s shoelace. (This of course would not have helped when my child was shirtless and shoeless… but there are so many different kinds of ID tags to choose from now, thank goodness)

5. Arm your child with a form of communication. Whether your child is verbal or non-verbal, communication is a challenge. Create a visual safety book for your child with key questions and answers he or she may be asked in an emergency situation. Practice, practice, practice! I also highly recommend Signing Families for additional communication resources and tools.

6. Get to know your neighbors. It’s a good idea to introduce yourself and your child to your neighbors. You can explain what Autism is, along with some of your child’s behaviors that would strike other people as odd. This way they will call you instead of the police, or help direct your child home if found wandering.

7. Extend the introduction to places you frequent. Introducing your child to a local store owner, diner staff, or other places you regularly visit can go a long way. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to an odd or inappropriate behavior, a clerk will know your child and be able to intervene safely or inform you of what they may observe. This is also a good idea in vacation spots!

8. Register your child with public safety. Contact your local police precinct, fire department, and hospital and register your child with their database of special needs families.

9. Teach safety procedures to your child. Even with Autism ID cards and tags, your child may still cross the street without looking or enter a dangerous situation. Use real-life situations (like being lost in a store) and repeat drills with your child as often as possible.

10. Use social stories. Teach your child how to handle emergency situations like fire, burglary, blackouts, strangers at the door, when someone is hurt, and calling 911.

Have you had any close calls with your child? What preventative measures do you employ in your home or neighborhood? Let me know by commenting below or posting on my Facebook page – I always welcome your stories and feedback!

8 thoughts on “When Your Child Wanders…

  1. Jean Nicol says:

    IDebi, it seems, unfortunately, that this story is always timely…………….. and sometimes even when you think you have taken all precautions you find yourself searching for your child or someon elses. You call the police…………… the child is found and all is well until 4 days later. Turns out this story is far too common internationally and parents should be aware, especially it seems if you have a child with special needs. I wonder if informed First Responders will be able to prevent stories like this from happening … http://gaia-health.com/articles501/000516-autistic-girl-taken.shtml

  2. JScarclar says:


    Thanks for sharing your story. I wanted to let your readers know that they can now get a LoJack SafetyNet bracelet and 6 months of service for free until October 15th. The bracelet uses radio frequency technology and helps public safety agencies help bring your loved ones home. They can get more info at http://www.lojacksafetynet.com. Thanks!

  3. autismpundit says:

    I recently came across yet another news account about a child with autism that wandered off; luckily this child was found alive and safe!   Seemingly every week we hear the same story, simply in a different location. Often there is a happy ending; however, too often the ending is tragic. It is happening so often that there is now a family web-site that remembers children with autism who were lost forever because they wandered away from home.

    Make sure this doesn’t happen to your child. As a parent of a child with autism, you need to make life less stressful by setting up systems that ensure your child’s safety, without having to expend too much energy. Rest assured, there are active and passive ways to minimize your stress levels and maximize your child’s safety!  

    Passive protection:
• Alarm your home so that every time a window or door is opened, you can hear it through the warning beeps of the alarm system. This can be programmed to occur even when the system is not armed. The beeping allows you to monitor your child without necessarily having to see the child every moment. The minute you hear the beeping, then you can act (just make sure that you don’t run into your spouse since he will be doing the same thing!).

    • For a relatively modest cost, a GPS child locator device like a Wherify watch (with monitoring) is a huge technological leap. This is a financial commitment but if your child is a wanderer or an escape artist, it is definitely worth your peace of mind.  
    • Teach your child how to swim. There is probably someone in your community who teaches swimming and understands how to efficiently teach your child to swim. The local pools and/or community centers are generally not the way to go. Ask around to find the person in your community with the reputation of being an effective swim teacher. Once your child is water safe, your worry about drowning disappears.

Active protection: 

• Lobby your school district to erect fences around the school yard with locked gates (which would protect the typically developing children from malfeasance as well). The child would then need to leave through the front door, which is often near the front office, generally manned by an adult and further away from the playground.  

    • Inform your school that the child is a flight risk and that you hold them 100% accountable for your child’s safety.  

• Make sure that your child is being supervised at all times by an adult, and not through the “buddy” system. The “buddy” system is bureaucratic speak for: “We don’t have enough staff, and the staff all want to eat at the same time. In order to make the staff happy, we have a child who is marginally older than your child, designated to take responsibility for the physical safety of your child. But, don’t worry, everything is under control… We’re professionals!” Please don’t countenance the buddy system for your child.  

Once you take care of your child’s safety needs, your stress levels will diminish and the number of crises should decrease as well.  Let’s make sure that the remembrance web-site for wandering children with autism does not grow by even one child.

  4. Caroline says:

    From Day One I made it clear to the school that my son is a flight risk and he needs to be supervised at all times. There is someone to meet him when I bring him to school. I worry all the time as I hear about incidents in the news.

    • Debi Taylor says:

      Great work, Caroline! I didn’t know what to expect from my child before there was a diagnosis or before I realized he was fearless and lacked the ability to connect behavior with consequence. Thanks for your comment, I’m sure it will help other parents out there think everything through before it becomes a problem like you did!

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