Most well known autistic individuals perceive Autism as their superpower, and we completely agree. It is well known that many autistic individuals even possess savant skills. Their different perspectives & understanding of concepts makes them truly gifted. In contrast, there are millions of autistic individuals from various strata of society, who struggle with basic cognition & communication on a more severe level. Taran Gupta, for example, a 17 yr old autistic resident of Colaba, Mumbai, who went missing on 1st October, struggles with a visual & speech impairment.
Taran, who was playing below his home, was drawn to the drums of a political rally, which made him join the crowd to dance to the music. This innocent indulgence soon turned into a horror story for Taran & his family, who now have been frantically looking for him for the last 40 days. This series of unfortunate events began when Taran wandered off with the political rally and ended up nearly 50km away from home. A Railway Police Force Officer, who claims Taran kept asking for water & pointing at the train, made him sit unattended, rather than reporting immediately to the Child Helpline, into a train that took him another 500km away from home! Even though he has been spotted through CCTV cameras in various different locations, crying & begging for food & water, tragically, Taran hasn’t been rescued yet.
Are we doing enough as a society?
This incident brings out various levels of issues flanked by ignorance that several autistic children & their families face. What can a parent do to keep track of their child at all times? What can a parent do to stop their child from wandering? Most importantly, how do we train society to take the right step when they encounter a missing neurodiverse child? How & why is that different than encountering a missing neurotypical child? Throughout the scenario of Taran Gupta, not one individual who came across him, took the onus of really stopping to look at what he was trying to communicate. How do we train our autistic children to communicate in such a situation?
If you think your child has a flight risk, or a tendency to get lost, here are a few things you could do to prevent your child from getting lost:
Understand What Triggers Your Child’s Wandering Patterns & Eliminate its Triggers
Try to understand whether your child wanders towards particular interests or do they just simply bolt towards something. Try to recognize the triggers and avoid those triggers. Use training modules that help your child calm themselves down incase they encounter these triggers. If they’re attracted to certain interests that trigger them, allow them to explore these interests under safe supervision in a safe environment (for example, if your child’s goal is to get to the water, offer a set time for water play each day in your home under close adult supervision).
Many times the autistic individual may even be trying to get away from a trigger factor (too much noise, crowded environments, etc.) In case your child tends to wander at night, you can follow the tips in this WebMD Article on Preventing Wandering. Another great way to teach your child ways in which they may need to communicate their needs in a case of emergency, as well as helping them avoid such incidents are Social Stories. Ensure that your child’s interests, triggers & obsessions are shared with first-responders, neighbors, school, relatives, and friends, those who communicate with your child and all of those involved with your child’s daily activities.
Teach Your Child About Wandering Dangers
If you have developed functional language, you can teach them about the concept of danger & why they need to avoid them. You can use different teaching modules to train them on how to respond in such situations. It helps to use the language they like & understand. You can also give examples of their favorite characters or topics of their interests, with visual prompts or props to engage them. For children whose language skills are limited, social stories can come handy. If your child responds to visual prompts, consider putting up STOP signs on all doors in your home, windows, classroom doors & gates.
Ensure That Your Home is Secured
Consider installing secure deadbolt locks that require keys on both sides, or a home security alarm system. You can even install inexpensive battery-operated alarms on doors and windows to alert you when opened. These could be easily available at stores like Walmart and Radio Shack. You can even place hook & eye locks on all doors, above your child’s reach. If you have a yard, you can consider fencing it.
Consider Using A Tracking Device
For more severe cases, you could consider tracking devices that can be worn on the wrist or ankle to locate the individual through radiofrequency. You could even look for various GPS tracking systems. These are the points you may consider while looking for the right device:
Does the system involve trained emergency response personnel?
How long is the battery life?
Is it water-resistant?
Can it easily be removed by the individual?
Are geofencing/perimeter notifications available?
Are there any costs involved, are there monthly fees?
Will the unit work in the area of your home, school, etc?
ID Bracelets Can Be Extremely Helpful
Medical ID bracelets include your child & your name, telephone number and other important information. They may also state that your child has autism and is non-verbal if applicable. If your child will not wear a bracelet or necklace, consider a temporary tattoo with your contact information.
Your Neighbours Should Be Alerted With Your Child’s Condition
Approach neighbors you trust. It’s necessary for all parents to check their neighborhood for nearby sex offenders. In the US the website www.familywatchdog.us can help. Knowing your neighbors can help reduce the risks associated with wandering. Give your neighbor a simple handout with your name, address, and phone number. Ask them to call you immediately if they see your child outside the home. Decide what other information to present to neighbors. Does your child have a fear of cars and animals or is he/she drawn to them? Does he/she respond to their name or would a stranger think they are deaf? Are there sensory issues or meltdown triggers your neighbors should know about?
If your child has ever wandered off, or you have had an encounter with a child who has been declared missing, leave your feedback & pointers in the comments.