Leslie Crawford is an Occupational Therapist with Tx:Team treating Pediatric patients in Frederick, Maryland.
If you are a parent of a school aged child, or have recently viewed YouTube’s top viral videos of 2014, you may have already heard Disney’s hit song “Love Is An Open Door,” from the PG rated flick Frozen. However, with the warm sun and a plethora of outdoor activities in mid summer, the only thing with icicles in July may be your own AC unit, on the brink!
With the enticing outdoor activities summer offers and the rise of children away from their normal routines of school, it is important to raise awareness regarding wandering and elopement of children with Autism and take a minute to second guess that “open door.” Children with Autism, or an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), are often known to wander away from safe places and familiar environments resulting in increased danger and sometimes tragedy. Particularly in the summertime, wandering behaviors contribute to increased risks of drowning and emergency medical service calls. Therefore, preparedness by both parents, the community and first responders is essential.
Try “walking a mile”in the shoes of a child with ASD. If an adult were to actually wear a child’s size 4 shoe all day, they would most likely have throbbing feet by their workday’s end! I know I would! Think of this throbbing as the continued discomfort and hypersensitivity that a child with Autism experiences on a daily basis. Not only may children with Autism be hypersensitive to tight shoes, but to clothing in general with itchy tags around their collars, environmental temperatures, lights, sounds and vestibular motion.
While sensory processing in the brain is quite complex and can vary from person to person, we can all agree that when we are overwhelmed by a specific sensation, it is hard to filter out the extraneous input and attend to the task at hand. If you can’t relate to this experience, I challenge you to go to your local convenience store and buy a bag of “Pop-Rocks”or sour “Warheads” candy. Next, open the candy and place some in your month. Now, simultaneously begin a crossword puzzle. How long will it take you to complete this task? Are you having difficulty? As I place candy in my own mouth while typing this blog, my mind is concentrated on the explosion of candy in my mouth: at my left cheek, now gums, now right cheek!
To promote Autism awareness in your community, help others to identify characteristics and potential behaviors a child with ASD may demonstrate. Aforementioned, try the simulation above with random community members to help them understand sensory integration difficulties. Further educate the community on communication difficulties children with Autism may experience, such as their ability to accurately interpret help, or those able to help them, their ability to identify danger, and their need for extra sensory, gestural and communication processing time. With more knowledge regarding pervasive developmental disorders, the easier and safer it will be for all involved to respond to a situation regarding wondering or elopement. Additionally, while some behaviors may prove to be challenging during a crisis situation, remind members of the community and first responders that certain behaviors may be self-soothing to the individual, and halting this behavior may exacerbate stress and increase the present danger to a child with Autism.
If your child has ASD, I encourage you to establish a plan and be proactive in anticipation of wandering and elopement. Alert neighbors and your local EMS squad of you child’s diagnosis, as well as provide EMS with contact information of family members to be reached in case of emergency. Know your neighborhood and preferred places your child may like to visit. Occupational therapists can assist children and a family establish sensory diets and strategies to manage challenging behaviors, as well as their overall health, wellness and functional independence. Many resources are available to practitioners and parents to help plan for wandering and elopement, such as The Big Red Toolkits for caregivers, clinicians and first responders. This resource, developed by the Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education team, helps establish safe occupational engagement in the community. The Big Red Toolkits are available online and contain educational materials, caregiver resources, tip-sheets, social stories to help child habituate to common events.
With the appeal of water in community pools, lakes and rivers, the risk of drowning associated with elopement and wandering is highly prevalent. Ask your community pool about sensory supported swimming classes lead by an Occupational Therapist, who can provide aquatic training techniques to instructors to interact and teach children with ASD.
In order to make our community like Disney’s, “Magic Kingdom”, we must increase awareness and educate those around us of the Autism population’s needs.