The tragic story of Maddox Ritch, a 6-year-old boy with autism from North Carolina who ran away from his father in a park and drowned, shows to the difficulties families of children with autism encounter and the efforts they make to keep their children safe. The children run away from them in parking lots. They don’t consistently respond to their names. They see something they are interested in and crawl out of car seats while the vehicle is moving.
Some parents are so concerned that they do not leave home unless absolutely necessary—they’re even afraid to send their children to school, because the kids might run away without anyone noticing. They fear judgment by the public and law enforcement. As clinicians who care for children with developmental differences, we get questions almost every day from people who want to know what they can do to stop these dangerous behaviors.
Their concerns are warranted. In fact, nearly half of families report that their children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) wander or run away from safe environments, putting themselves at risk of physical harm, including drowning and traffic injuries. In the American Journal of Public Health, Guohoa Li of Columbia University reports that individuals with ASD are three times more likely to experience death by injury than the general population.
While families might feel alone, they do not have to be alone. They can reach out to their children’s pediatricians, teachers, therapists and community responders for support. These relationships are necessary to ensure families feel safe enough to leave their homes and provide their children with education and resources they need.
Many families do not realize the resources that are available and how to enlist help from physicians, teachers and therapists. For example, the National Autism Association provides tools and information in the form of the Big Red Safety Box and related toolkits. At Advocate Children’s Hospital, the Safety Backpack program provides concrete ways for parents to prevent wandering and running away from home.
Inside the safety backpacks are information and tools to prevent injuries For example, they are equipped with waterproof safety tattoos, outlet covers, safety whistles, door knob covers, information on how to register children with local law enforcement including Smart911, and stop signs to help children learn about appropriate exits in the home.
For children who escape from their car seats, additional resources are available to assist with safe travels. These are for children who unbuckle their seatbelts and car seat restraints or try to open car doors while the vehicle is in motion.
To be sure, there is not a quick fix to stop children who wander or run away from their caregivers. But the Safety Backpack program and the Big Red Safety program are designed to prevent injuries and promote safety skills in children who learn more by what they see rather than what they hear.
In order for us to talk about ways to promote children’s development and participation in school, we first must deal with safety for all children.