My son has bolted out of the house on a few occasions. Aside from street traffic, I am also concerned about my neighbor’s pool. What steps can I take?
Answered by Bridget Taylor, PsyD, BCBA-D
Kate E. Cerino Britton, MSEd, MA
BCBA, Alpine Learning Group
You are not alone. In fact, according to an online survey conducted by the National Autism Association, 92 percent of the parents indicated their child with autism was at risk of wandering away from his or her home or care provider. An additional concern is that when wandering, many children with autism are unable to take steps to ensure their safety such as identifying who in the community is safe vs. unsafe, asking for assistance, or stating important information such as their phone number. I hope the following guidelines can help you in preventing potentially harmful situations.
The first step I recommend is to secure your home and yard area so that your child is less likely to wander away. Sometimes standard locks are not enough as many children quickly learn how to operate standard locks on doors, windows and gates. Install locks on doors and gates in the yard that your child cannot open. In addition, if your home has an alarm system, keep it set to go off whenever a door or window has been opened. If your home does not have an alarm, install an alarm system that signals when a door or window is opened. There are a variety of systems available, including high-tech and low-tech options. You may consider contacting a medical or educational provider, who can help identify resources to help obtain funding for such systems/equipment. Here are some suggested websites:
Another option is to monitor your child around the house by using a video monitoring system or a baby monitor that has video monitoring capability, such as:
If you have a pool or there is a pool nearby, ensure there is a locked fence surrounding the pool. You can also purchase a pool alarm for yours and/or your neighbor’s pools (e.g.,www.poolguard.com). If your child goes into pools unsupervised, you can also use the Turtle, which is a wristband that locks securely around your child’s wrist and sounds an alarm if it becomes immersed in water.
It is also critical to inform your police and fire departments that an individual with autism resides in your home. You can do this by calling your local non-emergency telephone number and ask personnel to note in the 911 database that someone with autism lives at your address. If there is ever an emergency, the emergency responders will know in advance that they need to respond accordingly. I also recommend giving local police and fire departments a picture of your child with your contact information on the back which can be helpful in identifying your child if s/he is ever brought to the station by someone else. Another suggestion would be to register with the National Child Identification Program. The program provides a kit that includes information on everything law enforcement would need in case of an emergency.
You can also consider completing the Autism Elopement form found by clicking here Another tip is to make sure your trusted neighbors are aware of your situation. Give them a picture along with some helpful information about your child (e.g., s/he is unable to speak, s/he responds to simple commands, s/he likes to swim so please keep your pool gate locked) and about autism in general. Also include your cell phone and home phone numbers, and ask them to call immediately in the event they ever see your child wandering away from the house or walking the street unaccompanied by an adult. Also, assess your child’s current level of communication. For example, can s/he answer social questions and be understood by novel listeners? Strangers will be most likely to ask your child, “What’s your name?” So it is important that your child can be understood by listeners who don’t know your child. If your child will not be understood or can’t relay enough information, you could use medical identification jewelry, such as a bracelet (e.g., www.medicalert.org).
Once your home is secure, vacations may still seem unrealistic. However, there are some steps you can take to allow your family to safely stay in a hotel or space other than the safe haven you have created. When planning for a vacation, really think about your vacation destination and determine the potential risk(s) for your child with autism. Specifically, if your child has a history of wandering (especially towards pools or other swimming areas) you may want to ask for a room furthest from the pool area or without an ocean view—or maybe even choose a location that does not have a pool. When checking into the location, inform the hotel staff about your child and advise them that s/he will require supervision at all times and if they see him/her unsupervised to call you immediately. Also, consider using portable door alarms for hotel rooms, a child-locator systems and/or a global positioning system (GPS). You can find low-tech tracking devices and high-tech devices online. Please see some suggested products on the previous page.
Lastly, it’s essential to proactively teach your child skills that will increase his/her safety. Work with your child’s school or treatment program to include the important safety goals in your child’s individualized education plan (IEP) such as:
- answering questions to provide personal information
- responding to name
- holding hands
- requesting permission to leave the house
- waiting appropriately
- using a cell phone
- crossing the street safely (if appropriate given age and level of functioning)
- seeking assistance when lost
- tolerating identification jewelry
- identifying outdoor boundaries (i.e., not leaving the front lawn)
- learning clear rules about outdoor play (getting a parent if a stranger approaches, asking for help if ball goes into street)
- swimming more proficiently
- learning clear rules about pool use (with time out as a possible consequence)
Check out https://awaare.nationalautismassociation.org/ for sample letters to submit to your case manager and attach to your child’s IEP. Finally, it cannot be overstated that children with autism require very close supervision when in harm’s way. We hope you find these proactive and teaching suggestions helpful in minimizing your son’s risk.
Additional toolkits and resources:
Anderson, C., Law, J. K., Daniels, A., Rice, C., Mandell, D., Hagopian, L., & Law, P. (2012). Occurrence and family impact of elopement in children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 130(5), 870-877.
Citation for this article:
Taylor, B. & Britton, K. (2014). Bolting and neighborhood safety. Science in Autism Treatment, 11(2), 20-23.