“911, What Is Your Emergency?”
November 09, 2022
Calling 911 is a call that no parent wants to make. But that call to 911 is critically important when an autistic child is missing. It is the most important step in keeping your child safe in the event of a wandering episode.
In Montgomery County, Md., where Officer Laurie Reyes works, it is more common for officers to receive calls for autistic children and adults who are found than to receive calls reporting someone missing. They are often found by community members or officers in sometimes very dangerous locations such as bodies of water, other people’s homes, in traffic, etc. As she reports, officers are finding “missing at risk” autistic people at the rate of three to eight a week.
We know that in most instances, the parents of those who are found are not bad or neglectful. Most often, they are sleeping, showering, caring for another child, or just not able to keep watch every second of the day. As parents know, children can go missing in the blink of an eye.
First and foremost, call 911 as soon as you realize your loved one is missing. Don’t wait. If you are looking, you should be calling 911. It is not a big deal if you find them after making the call; just call back and let officers know you located your loved one. When you call 911:
Be proactive and fill out an elopement form at your local police station ahead of time. This will provide critical information you may have trouble recalling when you’re upset. It’s important to fill this out before there’s a crisis. Make copies to distribute to multiple responders. It can also be helpful to give an information letter to your neighbors so you have more sets of eyes if your child leaves home unknowingly. If you feel comfortable sharing, tell them about the propensity your child has to wander and a little about your child.
Be truthful to the police regarding how long your child has been missing. If you tell the police your child has only been missing for 15 minutes, they are going to search a much smaller radius than if you say your child has been missing for an hour.
Understand that even though you have most likely already searched for your child inside your home, the police will conduct a search of their own. It’s standard protocol. When we teach police, we encourage them to send one officer to do a full search of the house, and then have a second officer conduct a full search. We also remind them that children with autism may hide in places they may not think to look, such as inside fireplaces, under sinks where officers don’t think they could fit, etc.
Explore elopement prevention strategies. Install an alarm on your home that sounds an alert if a door or window is opened. Door cameras that provide notification of movement are a good idea. Changing locks to key locks or locks at top of doors may help, but don’t underestimate children’s cleverness. If you are planning modifications in your home, make sure you weigh all risks, for example, the challenges those modifications may present in the case of a house fire.
Seventy-one percent of deaths related to wandering are caused by drowning, as noted in a 2017 report by the National Autism Association. Teach your child to swim, doggy paddle, or float. We teach police to first search all bodies and areas of water, including pools, streams, creeks, and even retaining ponds. If you know of any nearby water, please tell the responders right away.
Outfitting your child with some form of identification will help if they are found before they are reported missing. ID bracelets are common, but we know sensory challenges can make wearing those impossible for some. Options to consider also include shoe tags, temporary tattoos, and clothing patches.
Wandering and elopement don’t just happen from home. If your child elopes from home or anywhere else, consider sharing this behavior with your child’s IEP team. They can help you devise a meaningful plan to curb the behavior by analyzing the reasons behind it. Together, you can share data to help determine if your child is running away from things, what might trigger the running, if your child is seeking something, etc.
Take your child to the local precinct to get to know the officers. They are likely the ones who will be called in case of a crisis. Meeting your child gives the officers an opportunity to learn a little bit about you and your child and gives your child a chance to get to know police officers. This is also a teaching opportunity for your child to understand that these are the people who can help if they get lost or are in trouble. Social stories can show that officers are our friends and that there are certain behaviors we need to practice for interactions with police, such as not running away, keeping hands visible, understanding what information should be shared, etc.
Shelly McLaughlin is the program director for Pathfinders for Autism. A parent of a son with autism, she has developed and conducted autism trainings for various organizations including the Maryland State Police, multiple county police and sheriff’s departments, Homeland Security, New York Police Department, U.S. Secret Service, fire departments, EMS staff, corrections officers, colleges, exceptional family programs, state’s attorneys and public defenders, adult medical day programs, restaurants, schools, hotels, libraries, foster care programs, and other professional organizations. She is a certified police instructor and a certified instructional trainer.
As the coordinator and creator of the Montgomery County Police Autism/IDD Unit in Montgomery County, Md., Officer Laurie Reyes has provided outreach and response to thousands of calls of wandering involving those who have autism. Officer Reyes partners with Shelly McLaughlin to educate both law enforcement and parents on strategies for wandering and elopement.