Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others. As a result, individuals on the spectrum are more likely to have a 911 encounter than the average citizen. Often times, this is in response to a child or other individual with ASD "wandering" or eloping from their home, school or safe location.
Wandering is the tendency for an individual to try to leave the safety of a responsible person's care or a safe area, which can result in potential harm or injury. This might include running off from adults at school or in the community, leaving the classroom without permission, or leaving the house when the family is not looking. This behavior is considered common and short-lived in toddlers, but it may persist or re-emerge in children and adults with autism. In fact, in a recent survey 49% of survey of parents of children with ASD, respondents reported their child with had attempted to elope at least once after the age of 4 years old. Children with autism have particular challenges with social and communication skills and safety awareness.
For example, in a survey on wandering amongst those with ASD, reports show close calls with traffic injury for 65% of missing children and with drowning for 24% of all children missing from elopement. This and several other factors make wandering a potentially dangerous behavior. These events can be high risk calls for the responder and a person with autism. However, if first responders are not properly educated and trained on how to appropriately address a person with autism in crisis, situations can sometimes become tragic.
First responder training on the characteristics of ASD, specific implications with regards to wandering amongst individuals and the best practices in approaching a distressed individual who has autism is crucial to ensure the best possible outcomes in emergency situations. The Autism Society began the Safe and Sound™ initiative in 2005 to provide much-needed resources on topics such as general safety, emergency preparedness and prevention, and risk management. Safe and Sound™ works to develop information and strategies to benefit individuals on the spectrum, their families and the professionals who work with them.
Another significant aspect of Safe and Sound is providing information and training to first responders -- those who are first on the scene in an emergency situation. Safe and Sound helps parents and professionals identify potential public safety or criminal/juvenile justice situations and provide possible solutions so individuals with autism and those who care for them can be prepared for, stay safe during and avoid these situations.
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