Safety Event Hits Home for Families and Children with Special Needs


May Institute’s Southeast Regional Autism Center recently teamed up with Safe Kids Columbus to address child safety concerns, including wandering, for children with special needs at the 2nd Annual Salute to Safety held in Columbus, Ga. The Center serves military and civilian families at Fort Benning and in the Tri-County area.

First responders from the local community, along with staff from the Southeast Regional Autism Center and Safe Kids Columbus, taught children with autism and other special needs and their families how to stay safe and respond in the event of an emergency. Children had a great time as they climbed aboard police cars, all-terrain and emergency medical vehicles, fire trucks, and even a helicopter used to transport patients.

“Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other special needs are more likely to act impulsively – to run away or wander – than their typically developing peers,” shares Melissa Chevalier, M.S., BCBA, Program Director for the Southeast Regional Autism Center. “It’s even more difficult for these children to distinguish a stranger from a friend, putting them in greater danger of becoming lost or hurt. Basic safety skills may some day become critical life-saving skills.”

Amy Bontrager, Community Outreach Specialist at the Center, says, “It is essential for first responders in our community and children with special needs to feel secure around each other if an emergency were to occur. Having an opportunity to meet actual police, fire fighters, and emergency response professionals who work in their community in an environment that is friendly and fun makes it more likely that these children will respond positively to first responders in the future.”

Some tips for families to help protect their children, courtesy of LoJack SafetyNet, include:

  • Advise local first responders: Fill out a disability indicator form and submit it to your local law enforcement agency. This will help alert law enforcement that a person residing at that address may require special assistance during an emergency. In addition to this form, complete a more detailed handout with information about your child that you can provide to first responders. Keep copies of your handout in printed and electronic formats so you can readily provide it to search and rescue personnel in the event of an incident.

  • Inform your neighbors: Give them a handout with a picture of your child, physical characteristics and emergency contact information. You may also want to describe your child’s fears and effective ways to approach, communicate with and calm your child. Ask your neighbors to contact you immediately if they see your child outside your home or property.

  • Place STOP or DO NOT ENTER signs on all doors opening to the outside: These can be powerful visual cues and reminders not to wander. You may also want to place these signs on your child’s classroom door. Because some children have an intense response to these types of signs, you should work with a professional to decide if this is appropriate for your child.

  • Secure your home: Use deadbolt locks, keep doors and windows locked, and install an alarm/alert chimes on doors. Motion detectors and window bars may also be appropriate. Some individuals on the autism spectrum have exceptionally good visual-motor skills and are able to quickly debilitate locks.

  • Teach swimming at an early age: Individuals with autism are drawn to water sources such as pools, ponds and lakes. If your child has difficulty learning conventional swimming strokes, teach him or her drownproofing, a water survival technique that will help him or her stay afloat until help arrives.

  • Eliminate triggers for wandering: If your child has an obsession with a certain sound or object that draws him or her to investigate and wander, you may want to eliminate these distractions.

  • Get an ID bracelet or necklace and tag personal items: List your emergency contact information on personal IDs and on tags for shoes, clothes and backpacks. If your child has sensory issues and will not wear an accessory, use temporary tattoos with your contact information.

  • Consider a personal tracking device: A Radio Frequency (RF) device is ideal for people at risk of wandering, because it has strong signals than can penetrate any physical obstruction. With an RF device, your child can be found in places that a GPS or cellular product cannot reach, such as a wooded area or concrete building.