By Kristina Marie Smelley
A lost child is every parent’s worst nightmare—especially for children with special needs who tend to wander.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office recently launched the Help Me Home program to encourage parents and caregivers to be proactive in providing information to help officers return lost children safely.
Wandering is defined as the “tendency for someone to leave the safety of home, a safe area or a car which can result in possible injury.” According to Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education (AWAARE) Collaboration’s website, wandering can 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.”
A person with autism may wander to get to a desired location, because of stress or anxiety, or if they have the intense desire to get away from something—often gravitating toward an item of interest. Sensory input or an overstimulating environment can become too much causing a person on the spectrum to want to escape.
School can also pose an issue if they have large open areas without barricades, such as un-fenced or un-gated playgrounds. Because child with autism can have social and communication deficits, safety awareness can be compromised, making wandering a potentially dangerous behavior. Other terms to describe wandering can include “elopement, bolting, fleeing and running.”
“We understand that elopement by children with special needs is common, dangerous and puts tremendous stress on families,” says Marcia Langer, senior program educator with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. “When an individual is lost, enrollment in the Help Me Home program provides law enforcement with a tool to help identify the person, decrease search time and get them home safely.”
Help Me Home is a voluntary program and has no eligibility requirement. It allows parents to register their child online with the Washington County Sheriff’s office, provide a photo and enter information, such as age, height, weight, medical conditions or special needs.
Information is placed in a database that deputies and law enforcement personnel can access via laptops in their patrol cruisers. Registrant information is kept confidential but is available to all Washington County police departments in the event a child is lost.
Registration for the Help Me Home program is $20 and is good for two years. The fee may be waived in certain circumstances. Project Lifesaver is $300 with a monthly maintenance fee. Limited scholarship funds are available.
A study conducted in 2011 by the Interactive Autism Network through the Kennedy Krieger Institute found that roughly half of children with autism attempt to elope from a safe environment. This rate nearly is four times higher than their unaffected siblings, according to the AWAARE Collaboration’s website.
Project Lifesaver International partners with 1,300 agencies in 47 states and provides qualified applicants with an extra level of security. Participants are part of the county database and receive a bracelet containing a waterproof radio transmitter. Each transmitter is assigned a radio frequency that is unique to them and their geographical area, which makes search and rescue faster. Bracelets can be worn on a wrist or ankle.
“When endangered individuals are found, they often have difficulty communicating vital information such as their name, current address or phone number,” says Deputy Kevin Mitchum, who works with Washington County Search and Rescue. “We’ve tracked and found people multiple times using the transmitter bracelets. As the Help Me Home database expands, it gives us more of the information we need at our fingertips to help lost individuals home quickly and safely.”
Bruce and Erin Wilson have used their experience with nearly losing their 8-year-old low-verbal son with autism to elopement. The California parents have created the non-profit If I Need Help. The organization uses wearable QR codes and offers free memberships designed to help caregivers and people with special needs. If a wandering individual is found, their wearable QR code can be scanned with any smartphone using an app. Individual profiles can also be accessed on the If I Need Help’s webpage.
Families raising children with special needs are also encouraged to create a Family Wandering Emergency Plan, identifying critical information, step-by-step directions for what to do if an individual wanders and emergency steps.
“Both of my boys are registered with the program,” says Risa Colton-Feldman, mom of two boys with autism. “It was quick and easy, and I was able to use current school pictures. They called to follow up and let me know the applications and paperwork had been received. Fortunately, I have not had to use it yet, but it is nice to know they are looking out for the safety of my boys.”
Kristina Marie Smelley is a Portland freelance writer and co-leader of a local support group called REST for moms with children who experience special needs. She is married with two children, one with autism. She is also a local singer-songwriter currently working on a collection of life-skills songs for children with special needs.