Stock up on sunscreen, pack the kids’ swimsuits, and load up the car because summer vacations are here! According to AAA, 66 percent of Americans plan to take at least one trip during the summer travel season, with many families planning more than one getaway while the kids are out of school. The most popular way to escape the summer heat? Head to a destination where there is water – even if that is in your own backyard or the community pool.
Beaches, swimming pools, lakes, rivers and waterparks give us the most opportunities to cool off. With 10.4 million residential and 309,000 public swimming pools in the U.S., more than 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline (that’s a lot of beaches!) and an estimated 1,200 waterparks in North America, one can easily see the potential dangers of being in and around water. Water safety is a top concern for most families, but particularly for those with children on the autism spectrum.
So it’s not by happenstance that we thought it important to highlight water safety for families living with autism who are planning summer vacations this year. Swimming and other water-related activities are excellent ways to get the physical activity and health benefits needed for a healthy life. Most people have a safe and healthy time enjoying the water. Armed with important information regarding water safety, you can too.New environments and crowded locations, like beaches, amusement parks and waterparks, can often lead to overstimulation and sometimes results in children on the spectrum trying to escape them. This behavior is called wandering or elopement, and is exhibited by nearly half of all children with autism. The National Autism Association describes wandering and elopement as a situation when a person who requires some level of supervision to be safe leaves a supervised, safe space and/or the care of a responsible person and is exposed to potential dangers.
For reasons not entirely clear, missing children with autism, especially those who are severely affected, have a tendency to wander or elope from a safe environment and will often seek bodies of water such as streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, creeks, storm-water retention/detention basins, and backyard or public swimming pools. According to the National Autism Association, in the United States between 2009 and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91 percent of the total deaths reported in children with autism ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering or elopement.
Compounding the problem, certain children with autism may have difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication and may not be able to respond to their name being called. They may also hide to elude searchers, sometimes concealing themselves in small or tight spaces, and may display a diminished sense of fear about dangers in their environmental surroundings.
Remember, there is no such thing as being too careful or too prepared. With a little planning, your summer vacation can be the fun family experience you intend it to be. The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Coalition (AWAARE) offers six tips to help prevent wandering and wandering-related tragedies. Inspired by the list, we created our own tips for vacation travel.
An ASD Parents Guide for Summer Vacation Survival
1. Secure Your Vacation Home or Hotel
If you are staying in a place that has an alarm system, familiarize yourself with the settings, including entry/exit zones such as windows and sliding doors. If your temporary home does not have a monitored system, consider purchasing a portable system or several wireless window alarms, which work when the magnetic contact is broken.
2. Consider Portable Tracking Devices
AWAARE suggests you check with local law enforcement for Project Lifesaver or LoJak SafetyNet services, which provide devices that locate the individual through radio frequency or GPS. We’d also recommend using a personal tracking device like one of these Tiles, especially if your child has a favorite toy or article of clothing. These little guys are perfect for summertime travel and can be placed on most anything.
3. Consider an ID Bracelet
Medical ID bracelets include your name, telephone number and other important information, and may also state that your child has autism and is non-verbal, if that’s the case. If your child will not wear a bracelet or necklace, consider a temporary tattoo with your contact information. Just remember temporary tattoos can come off in water. Body marking pens like these can also be safely used on the skin.
4. Teach Your Child to Swim
We can’t stress this one enough, and it’s more convenient now that many YMCA locations offer special needs lessons. Make sure the final lesson is with clothes on. If you’re staying at a hotel, especially one with a pool, be sure to ask the manager or front desk person to alert you if they see your child alone. Leave a photo of your child, along with your cell phone number with appropriate hotel staff and let them know of your child’s tendency to wander.
5. Notify Your Vacation Neighbors
Consider introducing your loved one –in person or a photo — to your temporary neighbors, especially if you’re in a condo or house and there is water nearby. Knowing your neighbors can help reduce the risks associated with wandering.
6. Create a Family Watch Plan
Summer vacations mean other family members may be on hand to help monitor your child, but be crystal clear about whose responsibility that is. You can easily avoid wandering mishaps by setting some ground rules with family members when it’s their time. And let’s face it, you need this break too!
7. Establish Routines That Travel Well
Teaching at-home routines like having your child ask, “Is it safe?” or knocking loudly every time they approach a closed door can go a long way in keeping your child safe while on vacation.
8. Dress Your Child for Attention
Wearing colorful clothing can help your child stand out in crowds. Look for bright colored swimsuits and shirts when vacationing to the beach. It’ll be easier for you to spot your child among the masses.
9. Create a Scrapbook of Your Destination – Before You Travel
You can familiarize your child with your destination before you even leave the house, which can allay fears about new places and get your child a bit more comfortable with the new things he or she may see or places they might visit on the trip. A book like this can even help you prepare by making you think about the environment you’re going to and note potential places your child can wander away from.
10. Snap a Smartphone Photo
Take a picture of your child as you leave the house for the day’s activities. In the unfortunate event your child is separated from you, a photo of how your child is dressed that day can help family and first responders locate your child more quickly. And when you’ve had a successful vacation, those photos make wonderful additions to your vacation scrapbook!
By preparing and communicating with your child with autism, family, and friends, summer trips and activities can be much less stressful and more enjoyable. Now get out there and have some fun!
This blog post is part of our series on wandering and water safety. We encourage you to share this important information with your friends and family. Please see our related posts by selecting from the options below.