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Preventing Wandering: Resources for Parents and First Responders

A 2012 study confirmed what many parents know well: Wandering by children with autism is common, dangerous and puts tremendous stress on families.  

Amid a frightening number of wandering cases of children with autism this – many of them fatal – Autism Speaks wants to remind families of the resources available and the advice to follow to keep your children safe. To report an active case of wandering click here.

6 Tips to Help Prevent Wandering and Wandering-Related Tragedies
7 Steps You Can Take to Prevent Wandering at Your Child's School
A Digital Guide for Caregivers: Learning to Prevent Wandering
A Digital Resource for First Responders: Finding a Missing Child with Autism
Autism Safety Project
Autism Safety Resources and Products
Tips from Our Community
Other Wandering-Related Resources

New! Autism Speaks has collaborated with Twigtale to develop teaching stories to help keep your child safe! You provide the personal photos and details, Twigtale provides the scripted story. Stores include Water Safety, I Stay in My House, Police Officer My Friend, If I Get Lost and more. Check out these new stories here!

Six Tips to Help Prevent Wandering and Wandering-Related Tragedies

From AWAARE: Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Coalition

1. Secure Your Home
Consider contacting a professional locksmith, security company or home improvement professional to promote safety and prevention in your home. You may find it is necessary to prevent your loved one from slipping away unnoticed by installing secure dead bolt locks that require keys on both sides, a home security alarm system, inexpensive battery-operated alarms on doors, placing hook and eye locks on all doors above your child's reach, fencing your yard, adhering printable STOP SIGNS to doors, windows and other exits, etc.

2. Consider a Tracking Device
Check with local law enforcement for Project Lifesaver or LoJak SafetyNet services. These tracking devices are worn on the wrist or ankle and locate the individual through radio frequency. Various GPS tracking systems are also available.

3. Consider an ID Bracelet
Medical ID bracelets will include your name, telephone number and other important information. They may also state that your child has autism and is non-verbal if applicable. If your child will not wear a bracelet or necklace, consider a temporary tattoo with your contact information. 

4. Teach Your Child to Swim
Swimming lessons for children with special needs are available at many YMCA locations. The final lesson should be with clothes on. Remember: teaching your child how to swim does not mean your child is safe in water. If you own a pool, fence it and if neighbors have pools, let them know of these safety precautions and your child's tendency to wander. Remove all toys or items of interest from the pool when not in use.

5. Alert Your Neighbors
It is recommended that caregivers plan a brief visit with neighbors to introduce their loved or provide a photograph. Knowing your neighbors can help reduce the risks associated with wandering. See the caregiver tool kit below for resources to use to alert them. 

6. Alert First Responders
Providing first responders with key information before an incident occurs may improve response. Informational handouts should include all pertinent information and be copied and carried with caregivers at all times. Circulate the handout to family, neighbors, friends and co-workers, as well as first responders. See the tool kits below for resources to use to alert them. 

Seven Steps to Prevent Wandering at Your Child's School

1. If your child has a tendency to wander, it is critical to address wandering issues in his or her Individualized Education Program (IEP).
If there is a history of wandering incidents, it’s important to call a meeting with school staff, administrators, and your child’s IEP team to make them aware of these past situations, as well as educate them on the autism wandering issue in general. If something changes or an incident occurs, you as a parent have the right to amend the IEP and adjust the particular items, at any time.

2. Write a letter requesting that you always be informed, immediately and in writing, of any wandering incident on or off the campus.
If your child requires 1-on-1 supervision, be sure to make this extremely clear to school staff – and clearly documented in the IEP – and emphasize that under no circumstances should your child be left alone at any time. A sample letter can be found here.

3. Carefully document all wandering-related incidents.
Sharing this information with the staff at your child’s school will help prepare them if such an incident occurs at school. For example, where has your child been found in the past? What are his or her fascinations or obsessions? Where would he/she most likely be drawn to near campus?

4. Try to eliminate all possible triggers that have led to wandering in the past.
For example, if your child is drawn to water, be sure that all pools, lakes, etc. in the area of the school are blocked off so that there is no chance your child will be able to access them.

5. Ask what the school’s policies are on wandering prevention.
Understand any and all security measures used by the school. If you think something is missing (i.e. a barrier you find necessary that may not be in place), be sure to voice your concerns. Speaking up is often required to ensure your child’s safety. A note from your child’s doctor noting these incidents could help provide sound reasoning for strong security measures.

6. Introduce your child to all security staff.
Provide the security team with more information about your child, such as how to calm him or her down, whether or not he or she responds well to touch, sound, etc. All security should be aware of your child’s tendency to wander so they take extra note of the importance of keeping an eye on your child. Click here for an Elopement Alert Form to fill out with specific information about your child for all first responders including school security.

7. In addition to including all wandering-related information, be sure that your child’s IEP also includes safety skills and wandering-prevention measures.
Include these skills in your child’s therapy programs if you are able to do so.

Big Red Safety Tool Kit: A Digital Guide for Caregivers    

Be REDy to Prevent Wandering

This tool kit from the National Autism Association is designed to provide direct aid and support to families of children with autism at risk. Download the kit here!

The kit contains the following resources:

Caregiver Checklist Tool
Family Wandering Emergency Plan
Autism Elopement Alert Form: Person-Specific Information for First Responders
Swimming Lessons Tool
Root-Cause Scenarios and Strategies
Stop Sign Prompts
Social Stories
Caregiver Log
Sample Wandering Prevention IEP Letter
Tracking Technology Information (Steps to Take, About, Types)
General Awareness Letter
Five Affordable Safety Tools
Resources One-sheeter

Big Red Safety Tool Kit: A Digital Resource for First Responders

Be REDy to Find A Missing Child with Autism

This tool kit from the National Autism Association is designed to help first responders understand autism and become better equiped to respond in an emergency situation involving an individual on the spectrum. Download the kit here!

The kit contains the following resources:

Autism Overview/Autism Behaviors
Autism and Wandering Information
First Responder Checklist
First Responder Tips
First Responder Notification Form
Guidelines for Missing Persons with Special Needs (NCMEC)

AWAARE: The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education Coalition

The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration is a working group of six national non-profit autism organizations whose mission is to prevent autism-related wandering incidents and deaths. The AWAARE Collaboration works to prevent wandering incidents and wandering-related deaths within the autism community through the use of collective organizational resources, and by establishing and monitoring objectives, guidelines, policies, and tools that promote awareness, education, prevention and safety.

Click here to learn more about and for resources and tools from AWAARE.

Autism Safety Project

Safety is a critical part of all of our lives, whether we are at home or out in the community, alone or with loved ones. Being aware of our surroundings and taking precautions to stay safe is even more important for individuals with autism and their families.

The Autism Speaks Autism Safety Project is designed to provide families affected by autism with tips, information, expert advice and resources so that everyone in our community can stay out of harm's way. Sections include: safety in the community, safety in the home, abuse, information for first responders and more. 

Click here to visit the Autism Safety Project web portal.

Autism Safety Resources and Products

The Autism Speaks website contains a comprehensive list of safety resources, as well as safety products recommended to us by the community to help keep individuals on the spectrum safe in a variety of situations. 

Tips from Our Community

We reached out to the Autism Speaks community and asked for tips and tools used to prevent wandering. We got some great feedback and wanted to share it with everyone!

For example, Olivia said "Look at things from the child’s sneakiest perspective."

Click here to read the tips.

Wandering and Autism: Tips from a National Expert

In this post, Bob Lowery, Senior Executive Director of the Missing Children Division for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, advises parents and caregivers on emergency response to wandering incidents.

Click here to read the blog!

Other Wandering-Related Resources

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® is the leading nonprofit organization in the U.S. working with law enforcement, families and the professionals who serve them on issues related to missing and sexually exploited children. As part of its Congressional authorization, NCMEC has created a unique public and private partnership to build a coordinated, national response to the problem of missing and sexually exploited children, establish a missing children hotline and serve as the national clearinghouse for information related to these issues.
Resources for Families from NCMEC
Resources for Law Enforcement from NCMEC

Missing and Abducted Children: A Law Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management
From the NCMEC, this guide outlines recommended practices for law enforcement investigating missing child cases and was authored by a team of professionals from local, state and federal agencies. It describes a recommended step-by-step investigative process and offers a wealth of valuable resources to assist with missing and abducted children cases.

A Child is Missing
A Child Is Missing (ACIM) is devoted to assisting law enforcement in the search and early safe recovery efforts of children, the elderly (often with Alzheimer's), disabled persons and college students via a rapid-response neighborhood alert program utilizing high-tech telephony systems.

CHASE'ing The Village
"CHASE'ing The Village (.com) is a website, Android, and iPhone Application that allows users to build a network of trusted family, neighbors, and friends who they know will be there to help bring their wandering loved one home safe and alive, in a coordinated manner. (Think of it as your personal Amber Alert.) If you want to get the word out immediately, through instant alerts to your list of friends and first responders, let your network bring you peace of mind."
Smart911 is a free service available nationwide that allows families to provide detailed information about their household directly to 9-1-1 and first responders during an emergency. Families will create a Safety Profile of information and can provide information about family members, home address, pets, and even vehicles that will automatically display on the 9-1-1 call taker's screen when anyone in the home makes an emergency call.  Before responders arrive on the scene, they can be aware of specific needs of an individual with autism, such as how to approach them or if they are non-verbal. Additionally, the Smart911 Safety Profile can include a picture and physical description in the event that the individual has wandered. These details can save valuable seconds or even minutes during an emergency. Sign up today!

Autism Speaks does not provide medical or legal advice or services.  Rather, Autism Speaks provides general information about autism as a service to the community.  The information provided is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals.  Autism Speaks has not validated and is not responsible for any information or services provided by third parties.  You are urged to use independent judgment and request references when considering any resource associated with the provision of services related to autism.