Autism spectrum disorder and wandering: A parent’s biggest worry

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Cindy, the mom of a four-year-old boy named Christopher.  Christopher has autism spectrum disorder.   I was listening to Cindy describe her daily routine and her story really opened my eyes to the constant fear and worry about safety that a parent with a special needs child experiences.

Young Christopher has no concept of danger or fear, and like many children with autism spectrum disorder, he impulsively runs away – often darting away from his mom without warning.   Even simple activities like going from the house to the car are a constant challenge for Cindy.  Once Christopher bolted from her into the street and came within inches of being struck by a car. This all happened in a matter of seconds!iStock_000001230394Small

“I just screamed, but the frightening thing is nothing stops him, he just has no sense of road safety”

Cindy described how taking him to the park or a public place like the zoo becomes a major undertaking requiring considerable planning and one-to-one supervision.  Dangers are all around when you have a child who impulsively runs away. Cindy noted that so many public parks are close to roads and parking lots, are not fenced in, and sometimes a creek is nearby. Water is a particular worry, because Christopher is fascinated with it.

“My biggest worry is keeping him safe”

Even at home, Cindy must constantly be vigilant to keep Christopher safe.   She is careful about keeping doors locked because if they are accidentally left unlocked Christopher will run out. Every door now has a deadbolt installed up high and out of his reach.

To help with Christopher’s wandering, Cindy uses many of the resources and tools recommended by organizations like Autism Speaks.  She ensures her neighbours know her son has autism and is prone to running.  They support Cindy by keeping an eye out for him and will alert her if they ever see him out unaccompanied.  The Halton municipality where Cindy lives assisted her family by installing a ‘caution’ sign in her neighbourhood that lets others know that a child with autism lives nearby.

Christopher rejects wearing the various wearable GPS locators or a MedicAlert bracelet because he is very sensitive to items touching his skin.  Sometimes Cindy uses a child harness for safety when they are out in public, although the harness creates a skin sensation that irritates him.  Christopher just loves to run, so Cindy wishes that child harnesses came in longer lengths so he had more room to safely run and explore his surroundings.

Something else Cindy mentioned that struck me was how she wished people better understood autism spectrum disorder.  Often strangers look at Cindy and her son judgementally when using a harness.  As well, people often mistake Christopher’s behaviour for that of a misbehaving or disobedient child.  Being a parent of a child with autism is a major challenge, and she wishes for more understanding by others about her fears and her concerns.  Hearing Cindy’s story has greatly increased my empathy and has given me deeper understanding and insights into Autism. I hope it does for you too.

Do you have a story to share about keeping children with special needs safe?  We would love to hear from you….

**My sincere thanks to the family for sharing their story.  Names above are changed to protect the privacy of the family.

About Karen Hay, RN

Parenting and supporting families to be as healthy as possible is my passion. I love opportunities to connect with Halton families on social media and look forward to chatting with you online. Halton Region is where my family lives and plays.
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