Autism: How to Handle a Child Running Away from School

When a Child with Autism Runs Away from School, What's a Parent to Do?

Photo source: NY Daily News

As many know, children with autism spectrum disorder are prone to wandering behaviors, leading to a constant worry for many parents. These worries came true recently when a child ran away from school in East Harlem. While these dangers are always present, there are certain precautions both parents and schools themselves can take.

Wandering behavior

Approximately one in 68 children are estimated to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the United States, and about half of those children have been found to succumb to wandering behavior according to research by the Interactive Autism Network.

A huge danger associated with wandering behavior in children with autism spectrum disorder is that many of them are not able to communicate with the people that eventually find them. This can be as basic as telling them they are lost, or what their name is. As a result, even when they are found, often people cannot sufficiently help them.

Occasionally, there will even be fatalities associated with wandering behavior - particularly if the child walks into traffic or into a body of water. As a result, many parents live in constant fear.

A nightmare come true

For Tamika Wilson, worrying about the safety of her son, five-year-old Paris Jay Washington, is a constant. Unfortunately, her biggest fears came true after her son wandered out of school in East Harlem.

On a Monday morning, school officials at The Mosaic Preparatory Academy called her to alert her to the situation. They said that he was last seen around 10:30 in the morning, playing with other children on the playground at recess.

Wilson explained why this has to be taken so seriously: "It's a very dangerous situation. I feel they were very negligent with the supervision that they have for my child."

She was furious that the school let this happen, especially as he was able to wander for many blocks before anyone even picked up on the fact that he was gone. She explained: "We don't know how long he was missing, where he was at, he could have been anywhere."

Paris has immense struggles communicating, making the situation even more grave. His mother mentions some of the many disasters that could have easily befallen her son, "he could have gotten hit by a car as he crossed a street. Everything. You see how many buildings there are. Anybody could have just snatched him."

Not only was she disappointed by the negligence of the school, but they did not contact her until Paris was back at the school - leaving her unaware while her child was lost.

While there is no way to know exactly where Paris went, authorities believe that he went up Park Avenue at East 111th Street, and it is possible, although unsure, that someone was chasing after him. When he got to East 115th Street and Park Avenue, a cab driver was alarmed at the sight of such a young boy wandering alone looking lost, so he called the police.

A statement was issued by officials at the Department of Education: "The school followed protocol and the student was quickly and safely found nearby. Safety always comes first and we will ensure appropriate supports are provided to the family."

Despite the Department of Education's statement, Wilson is still extremely disappointed with how the school handled the situation. As a result, she is speaking with an attorney to seek a better arrangement for her son. She explained, "We will let him help us find another school for him, and also come and speak with the principal about what happened and look at the cameras and stuff."

Wilson is becoming as diligent as she can be in protecting her son, and battles constant fear about him following the incident.

Fortunately, Paris is completely fine. He has enjoyed Christmas with his family and does not possess the many worries that his mother now has.

Precautions for parents

Parents who have children who wander are always extremely vigilant, and use fences, locks, baby gates, and more to protect their children; unfortunately, some circumstances cannot be foreseen and protected against, meaning that having an eye on a child who wanders at essentially all times is sometimes necessary.

Some tricks can be to use security systems so an alarm will go off whenever a child tries to wander. When doors have automatic chimes when opened, parents are alerted if their child is trying to wander even if they are in a different room.

Some parents also use GPS tracking devices.

How schools can respond

While parents must be responsible, they cannot be held accountable when their children are at school. However, it is their responsibility to discuss with the school just how high the level of attention their child requires is. If a school asks for safety information about the child, be sure to provide it.

Therefore, schools must take their duty very seriously when protecting these children. It is absolutely crucial for professionals to be aware and prepared, and educate staff for how they can build a safe environment and protect from wandering. Immediate action for preventing wandering must be put in place, regardless of whether there is one child who wanders or fifty.

Not only should the students' primary teachers be aware, but it is also crucial to educate substitute and paraprofessional staff about the dangers and precautions as well.

Precautions that sometimes substitute teachers may overlook revolve around the need for constant supervision. Therefore, these children should not be sent to another room or water fountain without being accompanied.

Some schools are even asking parents when children are initially admitted into the school whether or not they are prone to wandering behavior, which is an excellent idea as it will protect children whose parents might have forgotten to mention it, whether the child has autism or not.

For children who do wander, it is important that they be introduced to any staff they might be in contact with such as paraprofessionals and office staff, as they may be the ones who pick up on the wandering during a situation when a primary teacher is not necessarily present. To amplify the amount of protection, especially in large schools, distribute a picture of children known to wander, and their names, to all staff to keep them on the lookout. The staff should also all be trained in how to approach a child who is wandering.

What to do in situations of wandering

If a child has wandered at school and becomes missing, inform all staff and call 911 or an alternative emergency number in the area. Tell the operator the diagnosis of the child, that they are not able to sense danger, when they were last seen, and what they were wearing. If the child has a GPS tracking device, attempt to locate them via that platform, and alert all those searching of their alleged location.

Those with autism spectrum disorder are often drawn to sources of water, so if there is one nearby it may be the first place you should check - especially given the potential danger.

If situations of wandering have happened multiple times, the school should complete a Functional Behavior Assessment to analyze what is triggering the child's actions.