Children with autism have a tendency to wander off or leave an area of safety, such as the school or the home, if they are feeling overwhelmed, or even just engrossed in their own worlds. Recently, we’ve seen a number of tragic stories in the news about children on the spectrum, wandering out of school, getting lost, or hurt, or worse. Leigh Merryday, autism parent advocate, teacher, and school media specialist, expresses her concerns over school’s lack of an effetive protocol plan to prevent these incidences from happening. Schools that are specialized for children with special needs are already prepared for wandering students because they are trained and knowledgeable about how autism affects a child’s behavior. However, mainstream schools are less equipped and therefore have higher incidences of autistic children wandering, or elopement as it is commonly referred.
Mrs. Merryday outlines a protocol for schools that she called the SPECTRUM Alert. She explains that her outline suggests ways to make school a safer place for special needs children, and this outline will look different for different schools.
(S) Search Grid: the school and community should be mapped out on a grid including areas of the school that could be vulnerable to elopement as well as any surrounding intersections, train stations, parks, and all bodies of water.
(P) Pre-identification: Children who are prone to wandering should have a file that contains: 1) identifying information including a photograph, 2) the child’s level of communication, interests, behaviors, preferences, etc., 3) any health considerations, and 4) a list of possible locations that child may go within the search grid.
(E) Law-Enforcement Liason: one person should be responsible for contacting law enforcement and the child’s parents and anyone else listed to help in the search.
(C) Code: the school should have an alert code for an elopement incident so that teachers would be required to quickly check hallways and out windows in case they see the missing child.
(T) Training: All school personnel should have training in autism that includes information about sensory integration disorder, social difficulties, potential triggers for meltdowns and elopement, bullying and autism, etc. A behavioral analyst and other trained professionals should be involved in the planning and implementation of this training.
(R) Relationships: police officials should be encouraged to develop positive relationships with children on the spectrum so that they will be more comfortable if approached by an officer trying to help them. Having classroom visits so students are familiar with law enforcement and able to recognize that they are there to help is one way to build this relationship.
(U) Understanding: all school staff should understand that there are certain events in gyms, auditoriums, or cafeterias, that can be stressful and unpleasant for an autistic student and plan accordingly to help them avoid those situations.
(M) Media: Radio, television, and social media especially, are powerful tools that can be used to locate missing children. Schools should consider a media strategy if a child goes missing.