Protecting autistic children, practical tips to keep them safe

It’s not unusual for just about any child to wander off on their own. But children who suffer from autism may not realize they're in danger until it’s too late.

"He’s always been a runner, wanderer, bolter -- whatever word you want to use,” Leah Benson said of her 15-year-old son Max.

Like a lot of teenagers, Max spends a lot of time in his room playing video games. But since he has a severe form of autism and is nonverbal, keeping him in the house isn't exactly child's play.

"You don't feel like you ever let your guard down between the risks of running, hurting themselves or others,” Leah said.  “All the things you are trying to think of plus just being a mom."

So Leah has turned her home into a fortress using a 2 x 4 and a lock with a removable key to keep Max from letting himself out. She also installed metal grates on the windows and a gate with a top lock in the front yard to keep him from wandering off on his own.

"It’s not that the child is trying to run away from home, they have this physical need to move,” Jonah Weinberg, Autism Society of Minnesota said.  “Their body wants to go out and run around. They may go out the window or the door. It can be so hard for a family to keep a child with a wandering tendency in the home."

The Autism Society of Minnesota also encourages families with autistic children to ask their neighbors to call if their child is outside by themselves.  And to teach them how to swim because drowning is one of the leading causes of death for both autistic children and adults.

"We all know what it’s like to be in a pool to feel light and floaty,” Weinberg said. “For a child with autism who loves to be in the tub and enjoys that feeling, they are unable to generalize that that river or lake or swimming pool isn't the same as being in the tub."

Max also wears a special I.D. bracelet with his parents contact information as well as a personal tracking device.  He may not enjoy being on such a short leash but his mom doesn't want to take any chances.

"I want him to be as typical a kid as possible but not at the expense of his safety or anyone else’s,” she said.

Experts say it’s also important for families with autistic children to have a plan in place before an emergency. If you'd like more information on how to put one together, visit the Autism Society of Minnesota at www.ausm.org

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