Sunday, June 23, 2013

Summer Safety and Autism

In two recent blog entries [To read them, click here and here.], I have discussed concerns regarding the safety of children and adults with autism, given that nearly half of them have a tendency to wander away from safe places. In “Autism and Law Enforcement: A Safety Crisis?” I highlighted the need for better training of first responders in dealing with people who have autism and cited the recent example of an adult woman with autism in my county who was subdued by a police officer with a taser and arrested for stealing a neighbor’s beer in the middle of the night. In a similar story that happened one week ago [To read this account, click here.], a state trooper in Oregon used a taser on an eleven-year-old girl with autism who was found walking down the highway naked in the middle of the night. Because of her refusal to respond to his orders as well her unusual behavior, he assumed that she was on drugs and felt she needed to be subdued with the taser. Unfortunately, she was simply a child with autism who had escaped from her home in the middle of the night without her family knowing she was gone. Certainly the taser was a terrible experience for her, but she could have just as easily been hit by a car wandering around in the dark on a freeway. In fact, this Friday around three in the morning, a car hit a thirteen-year-old boy with autism who has a history of wandering from his home in St. Louis County, Missouri. Because it was dark, the driver could not see the boy until his car struck him; he is currently hospitalized in serious condition with a broken jaw and head injuries. [To read this news account, click here.] Clearly, keeping children and adults with autism safe must be a priority for all those responsible for their care.

On a more positive note, two news stories this week demonstrated the importance of awareness that can save lives. On Tuesday, a pool technician in Florida saved the life of a five-year-old girl who had wandered from her home where her grandmother was watching her while her mother was at work. [To read this article, click here.] After hearing splashing, he found her floating face down in a nearby pond, pulled her to safety, and called 911. Thankfully, his quick actions prevented tragedy, and she will be fine. Because of this experience, her mother has installed alarms on the doors of the family home to alert them should she try to escape again. In another story reported this week [To read this news article, click here.], a suburban Chicago police officer was honored for saving the life of a young boy with autism in March. While off duty and sitting in his car in traffic, Officer Sean O’Brien noticed the young boy wandering alone near a busy intersection, which concerned him. He parked his car and followed the boy, who headed toward the frozen Des Plains River and jumped in the water. The officer pulled the fully submerged boy out of the river to safety. Like the girl in Florida, this boy had wandered from his home while his grandmother was babysitting him. Fortunately, this police officer’s instincts and quick actions saved this boy’s life.

Unfortunately, not every autism wandering incident has a happy ending, as these two did. Many children with autism wander from their homes and die, and parents must take preventative measures to keep their children safe. Last week, I watched a free webinar sponsored by Talk About Curing Autism entitled “Autism-Related Wandering: Keeping Our Children Safe,” presented by National Autism Association President Wendy Fournier. After citing numerous cases where children with autism had wandered from safe places and died, often by drowning, the webinar offered suggestions for parents to help protect their children with autism. I have summarized them as follows:
1.     Make certain windows and doors are secure with locks the child cannot open. In addition, install alarms to alert the family if the child should try to open a window or door. Warm weather often makes escape easier for children, as screen windows and doors are less secure. In addition some parents put stop signs on windows and doors as visual reminders to children not to leave the home.

2.     In public places, make sure whoever is responsible for the child keeps a close watch in case the child decides to bolt. In some cases one parent has thought the other was watching the child when the child wandered. Also, the responsible adult should keep a tight hold on the child by placing both hands on the child’s shoulders or locking arms with the child to make sure he/she can’t run away.

3.     Prepare for an emergency by developing a Family Wandering Emergency Plan; a great resource is [To access their website, click here.] Make neighbors aware that your child has autism in case they see your child wandering alone, or in case your child escapes from home. We have made a point to tell our neighbors that Alex has autism. In addition, make law enforcement aware of your child’s autism. Our community has Smart 911, an online service where people can provide more specific information to first responders about their families. [To learn more about this free service, click here.] I registered our family last summer, providing information about Alex’s autism, pictures of our family, details about where our bedrooms are located, and more. While I hope we never need to utilize this service, knowing that we have provided this information gives me comfort that first responders would know something about Alex in an emergency.

4.     Since a large percentage of people with autism cannot communicate verbally, parents should have the child wear identification, especially in public places. A child who wanders may not be able to convey his/her name, address, and phone number; therefore, parents will want to have identification on shoe tags, clothing, or bracelets. This week, I ordered a medical alert bracelet for Alex with his name, our phone number, and AUTISM listed. The company from which I purchased his sporty flex band, American Medical ID, also offers a lifetime service for $20 called Interactive Health Record, in which a pin number is provided along with a toll-free phone number and website, where first responders can access more information, such as medications, emergency contacts, and names of doctors 24/7.  [To learn more about this service, click here.] On my to-do list this week is to register Alex with the interactive website so that when his medical identification bracelet arrives, his information will be current. Another form of identification some parents use is a shirt (which some teenage children who could wander in the night wear to bed) that identifies them as having autism and says if the child is found alone to call 911. This shirt is available from the National Autism Association’s store at their website. [Click here for their website.]

5.      If a child with autism disappears, parents should call 911 immediately for help and not just search for the child themselves. While some parents may fear repercussions by getting law enforcement involved, they need help from first responders. In addition, they must emphasize the need to check first any nearby water, such as pools, ponds, lakes, or rivers, as many children with autism gravitate to these dangerous places.

Although we have been blessed that Alex has never shown any tendency to wander and seems to have a healthy dose of fear when it comes to water, we know that we must continue to be vigilant when it comes to his safety. By putting preventative measures into place, we hope that we can continue to protect him from danger, and we pray that God will continue to watch over him and keep him safe from harm.

“For He will order His angels to protect you wherever you go.” Psalm 91:11


phyllisbizeemom said...

Pam, I discovered your blog in Jan 2013 & have looked forward to every one of your posts!! You have a lot of knowledge, wisdom & experience!

Thank you for sharing with the rest of us autism parents!

Take care & God Bless!


Pam Byrne said...

Dear phyllisbizeemom,
Thanks so much for your nice note. I am glad you like my blog, and I appreciate your kind words. I'm always pleased to hear from another autism mom, and I hope things are going well for you. Wishing you and your family many blessings!
Take care,