As the parent of an autistic child, one of my worst nightmares unfolded– not once, but twice. And then nearly a third time when she was a teenager. Here’s what to do when your autistic child wanders or elopes from home.
Imagine this: waking up on a Saturday morning, just as you would on any morning.
But this morning something feels different. You can’t quite pinpoint what it is- but you just know that something isn’t quite right. With the nagging feeling in your stomach, you go downstairs and instead of seeing your autistic daughter sitting on the couch waiting for you; you see the front door slightly ajar.
Almost instantly, you’re in panic mode.
Frantically you search from room to room downstairs and take note of the open cabinets in the kitchen, you check the backyard, and then you run upstairs. Out of desperation, you search in your child’s rarely used bedroom and when you see the still perfectly made bed; the realization hits you full force.
Your autistic child has wandered away from home.
What is wandering?
Wandering, also called elopement, happens more often than you think with an autistic individual. Sometimes these individuals are verbal and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they aren’t found, sometimes they return on their own, and sometimes the tragic happens. According to recent studies, nearly half of all individuals with autism will wander at least once in their lifetime.
Do you have a wandering child? If yes, then you’ll know what I’ve been through with my own daughter. If not, then I’ll try to keep these memories brief. It’s not something that I always enjoy talking about but again, I feel the need to share and bring awareness.
My autistic daughter has wandered from home twice. And each time was horrifying. Not a situation that I would wish on anyone.
Our Horror Stories
I woke up earlier than usual, I’m not sure why, maybe my instinct was just telling me that something was potentially going wrong.
At the time, B was sharing the bed with me and her father, something that had started after she had gotten sick one evening. And soon enough it had just become a part of her routine. Most mornings, she would get up and go downstairs, waiting on the couch with her favorite Cookie Monster toy for everyone else to wake up and for someone to feed her.
But that morning, there was something wrong.
When I went downstairs to check on her, the first thing I noticed was the open front door.
It wasn’t even wide open, just open enough.
We did have a chain lock and key for the front door, as it needs to be locked from the inside as well as the outside. At the time, the chain lock was low enough for her to reach and I’m not sure if the key was in the door or not.
B is observant, very observant, so she knew enough that the chain lock had to be undone to open the door.
Most of the time, however, an adult was awake when she tried to play with the lock. And once I saw that open door, my heart sank. Immediately, I checked the kitchen and basement just to be on the safe side but to no avail.
B was gone.
I wasn’t sure when she had gotten out, so I wasn’t sure how long she had been gone or where she could have possibly gone to. But once I realized she was missing, I ran back upstairs to alert her father. He went searching through the neighborhood and I called the police.
Once I was on the phone, my fears subsided as I could clearly hear her in the background- I knew that stimming noise anywhere.
I was able to describe her in great detail and we then went down to the police station to get her. We were informed that she was found near the McDonald’s by our house. A great feat indeed because that requires crossing quite a busy intersection.
I have no idea what traffic was like at the time, but thank goodness she managed to navigate her way down there unscathed. We would often walk to McDonald’s, so she definitely knew the way to get there. Suffice it to say, after that incident, we stopped walking to McDonald’s.
The second time she got out was similar to the first time, only it was 2013.
At the time, her father and I were separated and I was staying with my boyfriend during the week. B, once again guided by her stomach, went to the local McDonald’s only to be found by a good Samaritan.
I got a phone call in the wee hours of the morning from her father and then another from CPS (as they’re prone to getting involved in situations like that- a living nightmare, to say the least.). I had to work the next day and didn’t get much sleep that night, in addition to being four months pregnant.
Both times, God must have been looking out for her.
Because, by the grace of God, someone found her and took her to the hotel across the street, to a safe place. I can’t even imagine what could have happened to my poor girl. She’s non-verbal and innocent. She trusts adults too easily, she has no sense of danger, and no real fear of strangers.
She’s my wandering child.
Now, we have an alarm system for the house that goes off whenever any of the access doors (front, back, basement) are opened.
We also have a new slide lock that’s higher up on the door frame and all keys are kept out of sight. B has a sound alarm, that makes a noise similar to a doorbell, on her bedroom door. I’m working on getting an ankle ID bracelet and possibly something else for her. I’m open to anything.
We’re also looking into AngelSense.
She’s gotten better at public situations, but there were also times that she would bolt.
I remember a few times at the mall that she would run. Or, during our family vacation to Sesame Place, the first day we had stopped at a local mall and B made a run for it. I was chasing her through the mall, and she was laughing. Because of this, she holds someone’s hand at all times or she holds someone’s arm at all times.
Because, no matter her age, she’s my wandering child and I will do anything to keep her safe.
How you can prepare for this situation
So would you know what to do if your autistic child wandered from home or another safe place? What if your child, like mine, is non-verbal? How would you prepare for this situation?
I touched on this topic briefly in my Autism A to Z series. In that post, I shared a few links for resources and you can view that post: What to Do When They Wander if you’d like.
I’m also including a set of simple ID cards that you can print out and laminate. There’s space on there to write your child’s name, your name & cell phone name, father’s name & cell phone number, and home address & home phone number.
I have also created an alternate set of free printable ID cards. They are also included in the autism family guide.
Download a copy and be sure to print out on landscape mode as they print out four to a page:
What else can you do? Take a moment and really look at your child. Things to make note of
On their face:
- Eye color
- Hair color
- Distinguishing facial features (freckles, chipped tooth, braces, beauty marks, scars, etc.)
On their body:
- Beauty marks
Before they go to bed or before you send them to school, make note of what they’re wearing: t-shirt (color, long sleeves or short sleeves), pants, shoes, socks, etc.
If you need to, write this down and keep it at your bedside or near your cell phone or home phone. This will help you so much when you’re speaking to law enforcement and panic mode has taken over.
And you can download a copy: Describe My Child Printable Checklist
This is a living nightmare that I would never wish upon anyone. I’m fortunate that my daughter was found safely and that she is still with me. But if this should happen to you, at least you’ll hopefully know what to do when your autistic child wanders.
This post was originally published on August 9, 2014 and was updated on March 3, 2016 to include the ID cards, the printable checklist, and an improved image.
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