The National Autism Association is making headlines for advocating the
implementation of a diagnostic code on behalf of minors with special needs that have a history of
wandering. A serious risk among children with autism is death associated with wandering, including accidental
drowning and exposure. A special diagnostic code would increase awareness among physicians about this phenomenon and help disseminate critical prevention materials and safety recommendations. As we head into
spring and then summer, accidents and fatalities associated with wandering will surely rise with warmer temperatures, making these issues all-the-more pressing.
In addition to greater preparedness and prevention, a diagnostic code would help police and search-and-rescue teams establish protocols for interacting with individuals that have autism. This dovetails nicely into the necessity of our police force to become more skilled in dealing with those in the community. As we have seen lately, too many avoidable tragedies have occurred when individuals with autism were unable to interact appropriately with officers.
Another related issue involving children with autism is the propensity to flee when their sense of safety is threatened. Statistically, these children are at a much greater risk for restraint. Unfortunately, I know this all-too-well as it has happened to my fifteen-year-old son multiple times and in multiple ways.
Most recently, his anxiety was triggered in school, which caused him to flee his class and scream down the halls. While his teacher didn’t restrain him physically, she did tell him that he terrified the entire school and his classmates thought they were in the midst of another Columbine situation. I can’t tell you how devastated and humiliated he was to be told this. He even had a horrific nightmare that his teacher grew huge and sprayed him with pesticide and he died. Obviously, her tactics were as psychologically wounding as any type of restraint she could have used.
Since children with flight impulses have been known to disappear from environments where they are presumed to be safe, best practices entail addressing a child’s triggers at the source and having a response plan ready when an incident does occur.
Right now, there is a way to protect a wandering child with autism without having to wait for any changes to the diagnostic code. Project Lifesaver ( http://projectlifesaver.org ) fits individuals with a lightweight tracking device and trains teams to successfully recover them when they get lost. Cost of the service is twenty-five dollars per month for maintenance of the device, although sometimes the services are rendered for free. With the advent of the diagnostic codes, insurance would likely cover it as well.
There are so many ways parents of a children with autism need to address their safety, especially since their emotional and physical needs are so directly and powerfully linked.
It’s essential to connect with existing resources within the local community and for those resources to be strengthened and expanded. And ultimately, it’s the people who interact with our children on a regular basis who are the ones that will be instrumental in helping us keep them safe.