Every day as the parent of children on the autism spectrum is a new adventure. Our family recently had one of those adventures when I was asked to speak at our township’s Memorial Day event. After I completed my speech, I walked down to be with my family for the laying of flowers on the tombs of veterans and the 21-gun salute. Knowing my youngest son, Michael, is very sensitive to loud noises, I wanted to make sure he was not near the rifle squad when they fired their salute.
When I got to my family, however, I could not find Michael. My wife was video recording my speech and the two older boys were attentively listening to what I had to say. After the speech, my wife thought Michael had gone off with his brothers. I found them and they thought he was with his mother.
Panic hit instantly. My wife and I started scrambling to find him, while hoping not to disrupt the ongoing events. After about a minute of searching, we found him helping place flowers on the graves of veterans. I think Michael voted with his feet that my speech was too long and boring.
Children with autism tend to wander off, particularly when in crowds. I have come to learn that crowded environments can be over-stimulating for a child on the spectrum. The crowds can also make it hard to find your child when he or she wanders off.
Tips for Keeping Your Child Safe
Wandering off is a constant danger for parents of a child with autism. Some sources indicate that kids on the spectrum are at an elevated risk for fatalities from drowning or being hit by a moving vehicle. How do you make sure your child with special needs is not at risk while allowing your other children to enjoy events and activities? It’s a delicate balancing act. As a parent, I have had to learn more about what makes a child like Michael tick.
It’s important for parents to have a plan to keep track of their children when in a crowded and noisy environment while still being engaged in the event. Making a plan is much better than being isolated at home. No one in the family wants to miss important social events. These are a few things my wife and I have learned to do
- Coordinate who is keeping an eye on your child. (“Honey, I have Michael now, you go socialize and relax.”)
- When you arrive at a new location, do a quick walk around to check for potential hazards and escape points.
- Identify any roadway or water hazards and ensure their dangers are mitigated to the greatest extent possible.
- Develop an internal clock to remind yourself to frequently confirm you know where you child is.
- Put your cell phone number on your child. We usually tape it on the back of his shirt.
- Try to get to social events early, before the crowds arrive, so that you can scope things out and get your child settled in when there are fewer distractions.
- Crowds and loud noises will elevate the likelihood of your child wanting to wander off. Be cognizant of this and try to provide breaks outside of the main gathering places where it is quieter.
We realized long ago that having a child with autism means that there is never a dull moment. Those moments, however, come with many special ones and those are what we treasure.
David Cleary is father to four children: James, 20, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in first grade; his twin sister, Beverly; John, 12; and Michael, 10, who was diagnosed with autism at 20 months. Dave works as engineer in defense aerospace and previously served as a flight officer in the Navy. His wife, Patricia Tuggle, spends many hours during the week navigating the challenges of having a child with autism and serves with the Army Reserves on the weekends. Although it’s never easy, Patricia and Dave work as a team to balance the challenges of autism with all the other aspects of family life.