Very short legs can carry a determined child a long distance in a short time. Many moms of three-year-olds know this. But what to do if such a child not only has no sense of danger, and does not respond to their name? Many Spectrum kids are ‘bolters’, or otherwise talented disappearing artists once out of the house. It is a challenge to keep up with them; as few, if any of us can sprint like Marion Jones, especially if pushing a stroller, carrying a diaper bag, and wearing those shoes which are comfortable, but have no grip.
The trick is not to keep up, but to stay one step ahead:
Recognize the Triggers
Very often Spectrum kids bolt in response to stress or some other trigger; learn to recognize warning signs of stress before the “flight” impulse takes hold. Maybe the child starts to frown or pace beforehand. Maybe there is a word or phrase he uses. If you see these signs and try to remove the child from the stressor or at least get a tight grip on him (OK girls bolt too, but for simplicity in this article, we are assuming an imaginary three-year old boy) before he takes off.
Some Spectrum kids run for the sheer joy of it. They crave movement. For these kids, it is wise to give them their movement ‘fix’ by taking them to the park before attempting the mall or supermarket. It’s not a guarantee of compliance, but it may help to get some of the beans out or to least to tire the child somewhat.
Plan for Take-off:
If your child seems to have a propensity to take off, be prepared to take off after him. Travel light. Carry ‘stuff’ in a backpack, which will keep your hands free for running and scooping actions. Wear sneakers or other shoes you can run in.
When out with another adult, never assume the other person ‘has’ the child. Many kids are lost in stores or malls because these assumptions are made. If the child wanders in the direction of the other adult; shout out. If he is with you; shout out. This becomes second nature after awhile. However, there is no substitute for hyper-vigilence. Always know where your child is at all times when you are out together.
What to Do if you Lose Track in a Public Place:
It’s far easier said than done, but don’t panic when you call out his name. The change in your voice may register and be misinterpreted as anger. Also, try to think logically. I lost my guy in Circuit City and panicked. Of course, we found him glued to the big-screen TV’s (the first place the staff directed me!). Also some kids who get overwhelmed in large or bright spaces may seek dark, quiet or confinement.
On another occasion, I turned around in a supermarket aisle to find my son gone. Spilled boxes tipped me off: He had crawled onto one of the shelves, and was tunneling behind the cereal boxes in an effort to find sensory respite.
If more than a few minutes have passed and you still can’t find you child, consider alerting the staff and calling a code: “Code Adam” was named for John Walsh’s son, and is taught/practiced in many nationwide chains, including Wal-mart, K-mart, Barnes and Noble and Home Depot. If a code is called, staff will be placed at the door to monitor any people leaving the store with children, a detailed description will be taken, and a methodical search of the store will be undertaken. For more information on Code Adam and participating stores, google "Code Adam"
Always carry a recent photo of your child –just in case.
Drill The Rules:
Most Spectrum kids are good with concrete rules, so drill these from an early age: “we hold hands in a parking lot or crossing the street”; “we don’t step off the sidewalk without an adult. I remember walking with another mom of a Spectrum kid from the park, and watching with horror as her child sped towards the parking lot, as she calmly chatted about their upcoming vacation. He skidded to a halt right on the edge of the tarmac, because it was a parking lot and he wasn’t holding anyone’s hand! A series of safety rules insistently repeated and consistently enforced will help teach safety to any child, particularly one on the spectrum.
Consider a Leash: It’s politically incorrect, I know, but there are lots of new ways to tether your child to you than the old-fashioned harness my mother used, which is out of favor nowadays. There are cute animal back and fanny packs with retractable cables. There is even a ‘leashless leash”; an electronic device: Mom and child carry matching beeper-like devices in cute animal shapes. The “mom” one emits an alarm when the child wanders out of range, which can be set between 6 and 30 feet. I have not tested any of these devices, but I wish I knew about the electronic one when my boy was younger. If it works, it would have saved me lots of shoe leather and some gray hairs!
There are more sophisticated (and expansive tracking devices out on the market for more chronic cases or kidnapping risks. Spend some quality time on Google and research these options if you feel they are warranted. You may end up parting with some quality bucks, but it is way better than losing a child.
Tips for Young Escapers (Birth -6):
- Dress them in VERY bright clothes. This makes for easy spotting in a crowd or from a distance. It also makes the child more visible and memorable to others. “Have you seen a child in a neon green jacket?” is more likely to trigger a response than "Have you seen a child in a blue shirt?"
- If you have the nerve, and your child will tolerate it; consider an outrageous hairstyle, for the same reasons. IIf I had the time again, I would have shaved my boy’s hair into a Mohican. Girls can have outrageous and noticeable hair ornaments, but be careful they don’t trigger tactile defensiveness.
- Try to teach your child to answer to his name, or to call out if he can’t see you (play these games at home). If this doesn’t work, try a favorite song or a movie quote. Yes you may feel like a nutjob, searching between the clothes racks, singing the “Teletubbies” theme tune, but if it’s going to spark a response, it’s far better than losing a child.
- A helium balloon, if you can find an acceptable place to attach it, provides great visibility to a small child in an outdoors setting, such as the zoo. Put a bell on him! You can buy little bells in craft stores, which you can attach to shoe ornaments. These hook easily onto shoelaces. This way you will hear him every time he walks. You can simply remove the bells for school etc.
- Maintain physical contact with your child while running errands, and make it a habit, so he expects and may even seek it. My son does not like to hold hands, but he tolerates a firm hand on his shoulder, and is much less likely to bolt when that reassuring hand is there
Suggestions for Older Children or “chronic" Escapers
- Consider a ‘book of me”. This is the classic Autie tool; a little laminated book which goes around the neck and contains some notes about the child and how to contact a caregiver in an emergency.
- If you have good neighbors, use them as a kind of neighborhood watch, to keep an eye on your house and notify you if your child is spotted out without you.
- Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems: There are multiple variations of these on the market, some go around child’s the wrist like a watch, and some are receivers, which pick up the GPS signal from your phone. There is even a firm who will track your child’s every move online and notify you if he is not where he is supposed to be at a given time.This particular service was designed protect rich kids who could fall prey to kidnappers, and is VERY pricey.
- An Autism dog will keep your child with the pack, and can be trained for lots of purposes. This has the built-in advantage of providing a friend for your child.