The wandering started when Ian was three years old. He slipped out of the house in the middle of the night, in 40 degree weather, in the rain.
“Luckily, we woke up because the dog started whining. We found him, naked, on the swing set,” said Marj Hatzell, Ian’s mom. Ian, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder and is non-verbal, is now a well-known escape artist in his neighborhood.
When you hear the word elopement, you probably think of weddings in Vegas. But to parents of autistic kids, it means something entirely different: escaping, wandering, running away. Although no formal data exists, a 2007 informal online survey showed that 92 percent of parents of autistic children said their child had a tendency to wander. But “tendency to wander” does not describe the experience of a number of parents whose kids frequently escape from home or school.
Despite living in homes likened to Fort Knox, replete with alarms, gates, multiple keyed locks and deadbolts, these kids escape. And disappear. There are parents who live with terror, every day, that in the time it takes to go to the bathroom, their child will go missing. This stress takes immense toll on parents.
“It is literally the most stressful thing I’ve ever endured in my life,” said Ms. Hatzell. “My job as a parent is to keep him safe from harm. I have no idea how to do that, since it takes two adults with 100 percent undivided attention to keep him safe. Even with door alarms, padlocks, locked windows and dogs we just don’t feel he is safe.” Ms. Hatzell works part-time from home as a writer, and blogs about her parenting adventures at The Domestic Goddess. She and her husband have two sons, both of whom are on the spectrum. Their other son does not elope.
Ms. Hatzell calls the police to aid in her searches for Ian about seven times a year. He has been found in neighbors’ swimming pools, on trampolines, in nearby parks, and inside strangers’ homes. Ian has pica, which means he tends to eat non-food substances. Sometimes, when he escapes, he takes things–string, cloth, etc.–his parents would otherwise take away from him. Also, because of his significant sensory issues, Ian tends to shed his clothes before or during his escape. In one recent incident, the nine-year-old was found naked, on a park bench, eating lotion.
I need you to pause for a moment. Think about that. Think about what it would be like for you, if you lived in fear, every day, that your child would shed his clothes and escape from your locked, alarmed, gated house. Think about that moment when you realize he’s missing.
That is the reality for families of children who wander.
Much of the Hatzells’ constant fear has been alleviated since they began using a device called Emseeq, which is made by EmFinders. The Emseeq is worn on the wrist like a watch. For kids with sensory issues, like Ian, it can also be worn on the ankle, over socks.
Marj had researched several tracking devices for Ian, but decided on the Emseeq because its cell phone technology allows it to transmit through buildings, unlike GPS.
I interviewed EmFinders CEO Patrice McAree about how the device works.
“The Emseeq is unique in that it leverages the existing 911 network,” he explained. “The big difference between the 911 network and GPS is that it’s more reliable and sophisticated. It’s a very sophisticated method of triangulation that’s only available for emergency situations.”
Essentially, the wristband contains high-grade, miniature cell phone components. When a person goes missing, the parent or caregiver calls EmFinders. The wristband is then remotely activated to essentially make a 911 call for itself. EmFinders then gets in contact with the local police department, which uses 911 technology to locate the missing person, typically to within 50 to 100 feet, even inside a building.
In one case, Mr. McAree said, a school activated a child’s Emseeq device, and the 911 dispatcher was able to immediately identify that the child was still in the school building. He was found, unhurt, in a supply closet.
EmFinders, which is also frequently used for adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s, had helped rescue over 100 people. One recent rescue was that of Jakob Mull, a 10-year-old Spokane, WA boy with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism.
Jakob’s mom, Stephanie Lund, said that at various points in Jakob’s life, they had to call the police on average of once a week to help find Jakob.
“We had keyed entries, deadbolts, and regular locks,” said Ms. Lund. “We had alarms. He’d move furniture to find the keys. He’d figure out how to turn off the alarms. It’s like we were living in Fort Knox, and he still wasn’t safe.”
Once, when Jakob was six, he slipped out in the middle of the night and got into his mother’s car. He managed to get the car into neutral, and coasted down a hill for a quarter mile before the car hit a tree. Incredibly, Jakob was unhurt.
“One time, one of the police officers joked, ‘I wish we could get a tracking device for him!’” said Ms. Lund. “He was joking, but I took it seriously. I looked up tracking devices for autism on the Internet, and found EmFinders.”
Last fall, when Jakob was nine, he escaped from school. Using the EmSeeq, he was found in 20 minutes. Previously, it would take an average of between three to four hours to find him.
“It would take 3-1/2 hours to find him a block and a half away, hiding behind a car.”
Police searches aren’t cheap, either.
“The cost of missing persons searches can be astronomical,” said Mr. McAree. “In one case in California, an elderly gentleman went missing. The search cost over $250,000 over four days, and included helicopter searches. The 73-year-old individual was found 400 yards from his home, deceased.”
Ms. Hatzell hasn’t had to use the EmSeeq yet, and of course she hopes she never has to. But as the weather warms up, Ian tends to wander more.
“In the spring and fall, especially with the nicer weather he becomes very restless,” Ms. Hatzell said. “He elopes constantly, whether it is to the yard next door or the playground three blocks away. Our challenge with this is he also has no healthy safety awareness whatsoever. With pool season upon us and many, many neighbors with pools, it terrifies us to think what might happen. Every time he escapes I try to push the ugly scary thoughts out of my head but I can’t help but panic over the thought of finding him in a pond or pool.
Mr. McAree emphasizes that “EmFinders is not a stand-alone solution. It’s part of a whole program we recommend to families. Teaching your child to swim, installing locks, registering with your police departments–those are all critical.”
Despite that, both Ms. Hatzell and Ms. Lund describe an immense sense of security and peace of mind with having the Emseeq device. Both of them expressed the exact same thought:
“I can go to the bathroom now.”
“It alleviates our stress because he is monitored as long as he is wearing the bracelet,” said Ms. Hatzell. “If he escapes, all we have to do is call 911, file a report and dial Emseeq. It takes seconds to activate. I hope we never, ever have to track him but we have had to call law enforcement several times in the past. He has also escaped while we’ve been asleep in the middle of the night or while we’ve been in the bathroom. So having the bracelet on is very important.”
“It was easy to set up and the people at Emseeq were great in answering our questions and helping us understand how it works.”
Because of Ian’s sensory issues, EmFinders advised the family on how to use a “sensory protocol” to help him gradually build up a tolerance to the bracelet.
Ms. Hatzell said she even gets text messages and cell phone reminders if the battery is running low. “All I have to do is pop it back on the charger while he is at school,” she said. “We do remove it for school because we feel he doesn’t need it there. Yet.”
Unless you’ve met someone dealing with elopement, it’s hard to fathom the seriousness of the situation. Stephanie Lund said,
“It’s hard to explain to parents who don’t have children who run. People think, ‘why can’t you just keep an eye on your kid?’ But these little boys who don’t even know how to tie their shoes, they know how to get out. They’ll do anything they can to get out. Jakob was finding any means necessary to get out of the house.”
Ms. Lund believes the EmSeeq has actually helped curb her son’s tendency to wander. Since last fall’s incident, she says, “we haven’t had to use it, Thank God. He’s growing up and understands the dangers a little better. Plus I think he knows I’ll always find him.”
For more information and tips on keeping wandering kids safe, see the website for the AWAARE Collaboration (Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Responding Education).
For more information about the EmSeeq device, please see EmFinder’s website.
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