Autism and Flight Risk: Five Ways to Keep Your Child Safe

Girl running barefootOne of the most difficult parts of raising a child with autism is the fear of losing them. For my son, the combination of intelligence, impulsivity, and an inability to comprehend danger results in my family living in a constant state of hypervigilance and fear. When we go out, there is always the possibility he will try to run away. When we’re home, there is the fear that he will get out of the house. Our family has addressed this issue with an ability to think “outside the box” and one step ahead of our 14-year-old son, Ben.

1. Under lock and key
The most obvious way to keep a child safe at home are locked doors. We learned the hard way that deadbolt locks with a switch that can be turned by hand was only effective until he was 6 years old. One day he unlocked it and wandered out of the house while I was only one room away. Luckily, I caught him in time before he was halfway down the street. We switched to locks with keys and installed them on every door leading to the outside, my laundry room, my daughter’s bedroom, and our master bedroom. They are all master keyed so that our house key opens them all. In addition, we don’t keep our keys hanging next to the door. It’s inconvenient, but that’s the point.

2. Keeping watch: tag, you’re it
Another safety trick we use at home is something I learned from a life guard. While attending a beach outing for kids with special needs, they handed out lanyards with laminated cards that said “I’m Watching” on one side and had emergency first aid information on the other. This was to ensure that when there is a group of adults hanging out watching their kids play in the water, the parent wearing the lanyard is responsible for watching the child. This made me think about our own situation at home, where too often, my husband thought I was watching Ben while I assumed he was. This situation leads not only to missing kids but also to marital strife. So, we put the keys to the house on a lanyard, and the designated Ben-watcher wears it at all times. This way, when one of us needs to use the bathroom, we literally hand off the lanyard to the other person.

3. Tracking devices, helicopters and bloodhounds, oh my!
One of the most frustrating things about staying one step ahead is that we often don’t think about something until it presents itself as an obvious problem. Even after we changed the locks and donned our key lanyard, Ben’s safety was still not guaranteed. Last year, our greatest fear became a reality when Ben climbed our 6-foot privacy fence with the speed and dexterity of a tomcat. The person watching him was only a few yards away and watched him do it but could not reach him fast enough. He disappeared into the woods for 3 hours and was found with the aid of search helicopters and bloodhounds just before the sun set; he was cold, wet, and shivering.
After that incident, we obtained a tracking bracelet from our local county sheriff’s department that Ben wears on his ankle at all times. In the event that he ever goes missing, we can contact the police, who will find him using the radio signal from the device, rather than alerting the local news and calling the search cavalry. And from what they tell me, as long as the device is checked regularly and in working order, it doesn’t take 3 hours to find someone with this device.

4. Out and about
Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder know how difficult it can often be to take our children out into the world. A simple trip to the grocery store can become disastrous in no time flat. When our kids get overstimulated or can’t communicate, tantrums ensue and we often have to make a quick exit, while not making eye contact with fellow shoppers and store employees. Ben’s Houdini-like skills have also extended outside the home; school, stores, and Grandma’s house have all been settings for a “Ben Escape.” One thing we do now when going out is use a wheelchair with a seatbelt. Because of Ben’s sensory issues and difficulty transitioning, the wheelchair provides a secure, safe place for him to sit as well as the emotional stability of his seat remaining the same while his environment changes. Portable door alarms have been helpful on the rare occasion that we stay at a hotel. We’ve even been known to stack some of the hotel furniture in front of the door, from floor to ceiling, providing a barricade that would make a lot of noise if he tried to get past it. We’ve done the math, and we’re statistically more likely to lose our son than to have to evacuate in a hotel fire.

5. Vaseline
Yes, you read that right; Vaseline. Good old petroleum jelly became my best friend after Ben’s 3-hour tour of the woods. I needed a way to keep fence-hopping to a minimum, and apparently barbed wire is frowned upon by our home owners association. So, several jars and a very icky fence top later, the problem was solved. If having an autistic child in the drug-store line doesn’t solicit enough curious glances from fellow shoppers, nine extra-large jars of Vaseline is sure to.

For more information about wandering and a free box of safety materials, contact the National Autism Association at http://nationalautismassociation.org/big-red-safety-box/

Related articles:
The Difference 1 Makes: Reflections on the CDC Autism Rates
Autism on the Rise: Are We Prepared?

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, therapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jon S

    Jon S

    April 17th, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    Although I probably should have, I did not realize that this was something that parents of autistic children would hav to worry about that much, but I guess it does make sense. But how do you ever teach them to take care of themselves or any sort of responsibility when having to keep them under lock and key?

  • Janeen

    Janeen

    April 17th, 2012 at 5:29 PM

    That’s an excellent question, Jon. And I’m still trying to answer it. We’ve tried two different ABA therapists, and after he ran away from the second one, we stopped. My theory is, that prefrontal cortex, which would usually stop most “typical” brains from doing something impulsive and dangerous, is damaged or perhaps just not “wired” correctly. In my son’s case, he will most likely need supervision for the rest of his life.

  • LawSon

    LawSon

    April 18th, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    I love the idea of tag you’re it. That is a wonderful way to be able to enjoy outings with multiple families and to know that you are not going to be alone when it comes to looking out for the children.

    Families with autistic children often feel like they are isolated from others because of the fear that they can’t enjoy the time out for always having to be on the lookout.

    But having other responsible adults to share that responsibility with you, that must feel really freeing for a caregiver who has not felt that in a very long time.

  • stressmom

    stressmom

    April 18th, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    simply having a good group of friends that you can depend on to let you take that little bit of “me” time that ALL of us need every now and then is crucial to staying sane, especially when you have a special needs child at home that you are responsible for 24/7. we never feel like we want to ask for help, but sometimes asking for help is the most responsible thing that you can do. it is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that you know yourself and your needs and that you are still paying attention to the things that you need in life even though so much of your time is tied up in that of another.

  • Mary

    Mary

    January 22nd, 2013 at 11:02 AM

    I can totally relate with the escaping. My son,5, is non expressive and autistic and twice he escaped our house. I have to use a backpack leash when we go to the store. He knows he has to wear it and doesn’t mind. He would run through the aisles and after having that happen and the fear of not finding him, I never go with out it. I don’t care what people think although I have to admit most have been positive, like “I wish I had one of those, I could have used it”. I’m now working on getting ciphor locks so that there is no issue with him escaping out the front door. We do have a screen but it won’t be long before he can reach the handle that is already up high. He’s smart he knows he can step on his toys to get to it. The back yard has a 6 foot fence so he hasn’t tried to go over but he has gone under so we constantly monitor animal holes that are dug under the fence. He did climb through one and escaped a couple of months ago. It takes one of us to constanstly watch him and his antics. And his sleep pattern is all over the place. Behavior Therapy is not covered by my insurance and I can’t afford the thousands of dollars he would need a month. Eventually I hope the federal government will recognize it and force insurance companies to cover it but until then we do our best. Our other son age 6 (almost 7) is not autistic and helps out all the time. He will have responsibilities that other kids have no idea about.

  • denise

    denise

    July 11th, 2014 at 7:47 AM

    Wow I thought this would work because my grandson doesn’t like the feel of sticky Itryed it and to my surprize it didn’t bother him he went right over like it wasn’t there.I used almost a whole jar.

  • Maritza

    Maritza

    November 27th, 2015 at 12:41 AM

    My grandson Mario is my middle girl child she was only 16 when she have him handsome Nene when he turn 1 she wake up by shake my grandson first attack to many after the one that did damage hes brain my baby can’t talk or either know good from bad in or out I’m soo scared of him getting out the house it happens 2 times people notice him what’s next??? I’m his care aide n grandma my worst nightmare is Mario Walking out n get hurt I’m soo worry n is soo hard to keep him in my baby don’t know any better nothing…. A car can hit him if he get out n the worst thing is that he don’t slepp at nite my self n grandma r a round clock moms for him

  • Susan

    Susan

    March 3rd, 2016 at 2:42 AM

    My child of 15 , he loves to run outside when he can’t have his way and it’s hard for us to try to get him back into the house but not to run after him so he want run into the busy Main Street that’s 2 houses down. He’s knows by running outside he gets all the attention on him. I have in the past allowed him ” TO THINK THAT HE’S NOT BEING WATCHED OR THAT WE DON’T CARE ABOUT HIM RUNNING OUTSIDE”. He returned back into the home from not getting the attention he wanted..SOMETIME IT WORKS..but I still be afraid for him by being to close to a main highway… What can I do? Ps and I’m going to try the key ” locking the door” Sincerely Worried Mom

  • janeen

    janeen

    March 3rd, 2016 at 8:22 AM

    Susan, that’s a toughie. I always err on the side of safety first, so teaching him that he’s not going to get a response in this situation could end in disaster. Have you tried a social story about being safe outside? Locks are usually the best way to keep them inside, and to remind him that he has to ask before going out. Then maybe schedule a time when you can go outside with him for an activity that might involve doing something he loves. Our kids often need to know the physical boundaries as well, so taking him where there’s a walking path, sidewalk of hiking trail could be a better alternative. And have reward when he does follow the rules. Hope that helps.

  • diane

    diane

    August 28th, 2016 at 4:59 PM

    My grandson is 4 very inteligant and very talkative at the moment hes been watched for adhd but they say cant diagnose till 6 for some reason , along side this i feel he has autism also listening to others sounds just like him since he was 2 he climbs 6ft fencing and runs off were getting really worried now has if hes left for a split second hes gone has hes very fast and when asked why he foes he will cry and say please mummy lock all windows and doors i dont want to run away but i cant help it , shes tried everything and at her wits end now has she has a 3yr old whom if know ones around has to risk him sitting on front step whilst going for his brother we have tried everything we can think of

  • Eugene

    Eugene

    January 28th, 2017 at 5:59 PM

    Thank you for this article. Our daughter Natalie sounds exactly like Ben and we have had many similar experiences. It is always good to know you’re not alone in the universe. I never thought of the Vaseline trick, we will definitely see if that will help.

  • janeen

    janeen

    January 30th, 2017 at 10:16 AM

    Thanks Eugene! Always comforting to know we’re not alone. Thanks for sharing that with me. :)

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