Finding yourself in an unexpected situation or emergency that requires law enforcement or first responders has the potential to be a terrifying experience. There are so many things in even an ordinary scenario with typical family dynamics that could go wrong or change at any moment. It is important to have a proper plan in place for the situations in our lives that are somewhat predictable or considered likely to happen at some point.
For example, if you live in a tornado zone, you take proper steps to plan ahead for a tornado. Schools have drills, the city has sirens, businesses have emergency preparedness protocols and individuals likely have plans for their families. If you live near a beach frequented by hurricanes, you prepare. Some things you might do include knowing when hurricane season is, follow hurricane tracking information closely when one is present and having a proper plan in place along with the tools necessary to reduce or avoid damage to your property and to protect your family.
Having a child with special needs greatly increases your chances of being in an emergency or unexpected situation that requires the help of law enforcement or first responders.
Here are some statistics that can be found on the National Autism Association’s website.
- Roughly half, or 48%, of children with an 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
- Two in three parents of elopers reported their missing children had a “close call” with a traffic injury
- 32% of parents reported a “close call” with a possible drowning
- Wandering was ranked among the most stressful ASD behaviors by 58% of parents of elopers
- 62% of families of children who elope were prevented from attending/enjoying activities outside the home due to fear of wandering
- 40% of parents had suffered sleep disruption due to fear of elopement
- Children with ASD are eight times more likely to elope between the ages of 7 and 10 than their typically-developing siblings
- Half of families with elopers report they had never received advice or guidance about elopement from a professional
- Only 19% had received such support from a psychologist or mental health professional
- Only 14% had received guidance from their pediatrician or another physician
Source: Interactive Autism Network Research Report: Elopement and Wandering (2011)
Source: National Autism Association, Lethal Outcomes in ASD Wandering (2012)
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls suffer from sexual abuse before the age of 18.
- Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, the country’s largest and most reliable crime study, reports that every two minutes a person is sexually victimized in the United States—and the numbers for individuals with disabilities are even higher.
- A study done in Nebraska of 55,000 children showed a child with any type of intellectual disability was four times more likely to be sexually abused than a child without disabilities (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000). While no specific numbers exist for individuals with autism, research suggests that this population is extremely vulnerable.
- 65% of parents reported that their children with Asperger’s syndrome had been victimized by peers in some way within the past year
- 47% reported that their children had been hit by peers or siblings
- 50% reported them to be scared by their peers
- 9% were attacked by a gang and hurt in the private parts
- 12% indicated their child had never been invited to a birthday party
- 6% were almost always picked last for teams
- 3% ate alone at lunch every day
Source: Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing (2009)
- It’s estimated that over the last five years, more than 20 students, many with disabilities, have died due to seclusion and restraints being used in schools.
- A 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation reported that thousands of students have been physically injured and emotionally traumatized as the result of restraint and seclusion
- Currently there is no federal law that prohibits the use of restraints that restrict breathing, and locked seclusion, in public and private schools.
- Dangers include: Death by asphyxiation; Bodily injury; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; Heart, gastrointestinal and pulmonary complications; Decreased appetite and malnutrition; Dehydration; Urinary tract infections; Incontinence; Agitation; Depression/withdrawal; Loss of dignity; Sleeping problems; Humiliation; Anxiety; Increased phobias; Increased aggression, including SIB (self-injurious behavior)
Source: United States Government Accountability Office, Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Center (2009)
These numbers do a great job of providing us with the information we need in order to know what our chances are of finding ourselves in a precarious situation and they are far greater than that of a typical family. What are some things we can do? Prevention is optimal but not always possible, therefore, it is vitally important we work together as a team with our law enforcement officers and first responders to build a community of respect, openness, awareness and advocacy. Our lives and the lives of our children depend on it. Their experience and knowledge can help us greatly as ours can for them.
So now we’ve seen some statistics, what about the additional things that coincide with these numbers or follow behind them?
For example, in regards to elopement, if you have a child who is missing, do the law enforcement officers, first responders or members of the search team know about your child’s specific sensitivities? Does your child have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Developmental Delays (DD)? Are they non-verbal or have difficulty making eye contact? Are they prone to outbursts, violence or self-injurious behavior? What might provoke an outburst from your child and what methods will work to calm them? These things can be instrumental in keeping your child safe once found. Traditional methods typically do not work on these children. If a child has a strong sensitivity/aversion to sound and someone is shouting their name, they may flee the noise instead of going towards the person calling them, potentially endangering them further. Or opposite of that, they may be attracted to noise and you can use that to find them in a close by noisy environment or use sound to attract them to you. Each and every person involved in finding them will hopefully have some form of knowledge, training or background on what these things mean for searching, locating and securing your child in a safe place until they can be returned safely home. Having this information readily available, along with recent photos (in print and digital copies) will be a blessing during an emergency, as it is not the time you are likely to be in the clearest mindset and remembering important or even basic details may be difficult.
Furthermore, it is also important to know your law enforcement officers and ask about the training they’ve received to help them recognize the signs of autism and/or other behavioral, social, cognitive, developmental delay. Find out what they know so you can tell them how it applies to your child specifically. These children and adults are described by many as having a ‘typical’ appearance so it may be surprising when they behave in an unusual or bizarre way. If a person with special needs is lost or not yet reported missing, these behaviors, often coupled with an inability to follow simple instructions, make eye contact and communicate may seem threatening. It is also possible the individual could become aggressive if approached or touched, depending on their sensitivities or what their version of a perceived threat is. A simple gesture for most people, could trigger the fight/flight/fright response in an SPD or ASD person, which is not a personal choice for them as it is a matter of survival. To further complicate matters, they may not recognize (or have the ability to demonstrate that they recognize) who their caregivers are, let alone a police officer, even in uniform. When you combine any or all of these things with the social awareness deficits that are so common, it can have disastrous results.
For these reasons, an older child (or dependent) may seem exceptionally threatening to the public or law enforcement officers which could result in horrible tragedy for both the officer and the adult child/dependent.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a wealth of information for parents, caregivers and police officers. Additionally, they offer resources and training to Law Enforcement/First Responders in regards to cases like these and more. Please find the following information (and more) on their website:
From Autism Speaks:
Video: Autism and Wandering 2015
Autism Society of North Carolina has provided a template that can be used as a preemptive measure and to keep with you as a precautionary step. Please read the first page for how to best utilize the document.