First, the alarming statistics:
- Children with ASD are eight times more likely to elope between the ages of 7 and 10 than their typically-developing siblings
- Roughly half, or 48%, of children with ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings
- In 2009, 2010, and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% total U.S. deaths reported in children with an ASD ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering/elopement
- More than one third of ASD children who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
Further, what we also know is that drowning is more likely to happen under the following conditions:
- During warming months
- Visits to non-home settings, such as a friend’s house or when on holidays
- During family gatherings
- During times of stress or escalation, which may cause the individual to flee or wander
As we approach the holiday season, honing in on your safety procedures has never been more important. A few reminders:
- Learn to swim.
Enrol your child in specialised swimming and water safety lessons as early as possible. Build their confidence, knowledge and skill-sets so that they are better equipped to perceive danger and respond appropriately. Ensure that the content is being delivered in the most suitable ways for your child to retain the information and develop the associated skill-sets. 2 x 30mins sessions a week is recommended. Many pools, clubs and surf life saving clubs run holiday programs so be sure to explore this as a possibility.
- Secure your home.
If your child is prone to wandering, consider modifications that can be made to help keep him/her safe. An Occupational Therapist may be able to assist with this. Examples include home security alarm systems, secure yard fencing, and specific locks. There are also wearable water-alert alarms, however human attentiveness is the most effective safety devices.
- Visual learning.
Use social stories to discuss water safety. Remember that individuals with ASD often have impairments in their ability to perceive danger and judge risk. Use visual educational tools to guide them with this. Also, be sure to outline specific rules that relate to water safety (again, present this information visually). Use simple and precise language such as, "Swimming in the pool with an adult is OK. Swimming in the pool without an adult is not OK".
- Key information.
Make sure your child knows his or her name, address and phone number in the event he/she is separated from family. If your child is non-verbal or unable to retain this information, consider a medical ID bracelet or necklace with identifiable information.
- Have a dedicated watcher.
From 2009 to 2011, 23% of children who died following a wandering incident were in the care of someone other than a parent. At gatherings, responsibility is often deflected as we assume someone else is keeping watch. At all times, have at least one ‘dedicated watcher’, to ensure everyone stays safe. Be sure that changes in dedicated watchers are communicated clearly amongst everyone.
- Display reminders.
For those who are visual learners, consider placing STOP or DO NOT ENTER signs on all doors that open to the outside.
- Avoid sensory-overload.
Summer often brings with it new environments. Be mindful of avoiding those which may cause sensory-overloading experiences, as these can often serve as antecedents to wandering behaviour. Try to prepare your child for what they can expect as they enter a new environment, wherever they might be. Consider teaching your child to wear headphones if they are prone to auditory overload.
- Alert others.
Communicate with your neighbours, whether at home or on vacation, and ask them to contact you immediately if they see your child wandering alone outside your home or property.
- Remove all toys or items of interest from the pool when not in use.
- Create an information handout.
Information hand-outs should include all pertinent information, and be copied and carried with caregivers at all times. Circulate to stakeholders. The hand-out should include:
- Name of individual with ASD, including a photo and any identifiable characteristics
- Sensory, medical, or dietary requirements
- Favourite song, toy or character
- Method of communication
- Favourite attractions and locations where the individual may gravitate towards
- Map and address guide to nearby properties with water sources and dangerous locations highlighted. Remember, CHECK BODIES OF WATER FIRST
- Update your First Aid
If you were presented with a situation that required you to assist, would you know what to do? Do you know basic CPR? Basic first aid is a one day course and equips you with vital skills which are potentially life-saving
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