Autism & Wandering: Prevention is Key!

The San Mateo Police Department Master Officer Program identifies an elite group of officers within our department who have earned the title “Master Officer” based not only on their yearly performance evaluations, but also on their years of experience and various expertise.  SMPD is lucky to recognize our largest number of Master Officers ever in 2016, each of whom will be submitting a personal article on a topic of their choice, allowing our community the rare chance of getting to know the people behind the SMPD badge…


Autism & Wandering: Prevention is Key!

by SMPD Master Officer Genny Atwer

As a police officer I have encountered many calls for service to assist with locating a loved one with autism who has gone missing. These calls for service can range from small children, to teenagers, all the way up to adults who have been diagnosed with autism. As a mother of a young child with autism, I have experienced firsthand on more than one occasion what it is like to have a loved one go missing.

Wandering as defined in the context of autism is the tendency for an individual to try to leave the safety of a responsible person’s care or safe area that can result in potential harm, injury, or death (  Other words used to describe wandering include elopement, bolting, fleeing, and running.

According to the National Autism Association, in 2009, 2010, and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering/elopement. Sixty-eight percent of these deaths happened in a nearby pond, lake, creek or river.  As police officers, we are aware of the higher risk associated when a person with autism goes missing and we’ve seen the anguish in a parent’s face when the outcome is tragic. That’s why we will always start by checking the higher risk areas like nearby swimming pools or the lagoon.

My own experience with wandering is a story that is still on going.  My six-year-old daughter was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Her outgoing spirit and fierce, driven attitude make it challenging as a parent to deter her ability to escape our home. As a parent, I cannot describe in words the fear that shoots through your heart when you can’t find your child.  We were very lucky to find Chloe. She had gone about three houses down and was playing in a large puddle in front of our neighbor’s house. After the relief of locating her, the “what ifs” kicked in.  What if someone had taken her? What if she bolted into the street and was hit by a car?  These are all realistic fears, and since that time, my husband and I have treated wandering as a very realistic behavior that our daughter is more than capable of.

I did my own research and found a great website, (Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education).  If you live in a household with a person who wanders, AWAARE provides a free Big Red Safety Toolkit. The box includes valuable information, door alarms, and other items to help mitigate the risk of wandering.  Please visit their website for more information.

If you are one of the many families living with a loved one who is at risk for wandering (this includes autism, Alzheimer’s, and dementia ), I highly recommend going through your home and taking preventative measures to help reduce the risk of wandering. Inexpensive motion alarms for doors and windows can be purchased from your local hardware store. Children and adults with autism also benefit from visual aids. For instance, we have used a large red STOP sign posted by our front door to help remind our daughter that she has to ask to go outside.

It is also important and helpful to law enforcement to properly identify your loved one. This is especially helpful for first-responders who may come into contact with your loved one if they wander away from home. I myself once responded to a call for service where a 16-year-old male had wandered into the home of someone who lived several blocks away. At first, the homeowner thought the male was a burglar, but he quickly realized that the male had special needs. When I arrived on scene we were thankfully able to help use calming techniques to help the male calm down. But, he was non-verbal and was not able to communicate his address to us. We walked with him around the neighborhood until he recognized his home.  This process took well over an hour and it was in the middle of the night. It would have been extremely beneficial if he had been wearing some kind of identifying bracelet. Identifying information can be worn in the form of bracelets, shoe ID tags, necklaces, or even sewn into clothing. Law enforcement and other first-responders are trained to look for these items.

As for my husband and I, we are currently looking into GPS devices to monitor our daughter at all times. It is a reality that she will probably wander from us again at some point, and our goal is take any and all preventative measures that are available to us. Being prepared is key! Make prevention a priority to protect your loved ones before it happens.

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