What is “Safe & Found,” and Why Does It Matter for Autistic Children?

Mother Hugging Autistic Child

Autistic children often express needs through behaviors that are difficult for parents to understand. Some of these behaviors can cause safety concerns that are very stressful for the adults tasked with their care. 

A very common safety concern for autistic children is wandering away from a safe environment. According to the National Autism Association, 48% of autistic children wander, a behavior that is four times more common for them than for their neurologically typical, or “neurotypical” siblings. They also note:

  • When found, more than ⅓ of autistic children are unable to communicate their name, address, or phone number to others
  • Two out of three parents said their autistic child who wandered had a close call with a traffic-related injury and 32% had a close call with drowning
  • Fear of wandering prevents as many as 62% of autistic children and their families from enjoying activities away from home

Thankfully, there are ways to decrease the stress and worry that comes with the risk of wandering.

This includes understanding why wandering happens, taking steps to reduce the risk of wandering, and putting strategies like medical IDs in place to communicate with others if an autistic child should wander. 

When it comes to medical IDs, investing in a high-quality MedicAlert ID and accompanying Protection Plan can greatly increase peace of mind for parents of autistic children. For 65 years, MedicAlert has offered original and widely recognized medical IDs to families. The combination of a medical ID and Protection Plan provides proven benefits for members who are at risk for wandering, with 500 individuals who wandered from a safe environment reunited with their families in 2021 alone.

MedicAlert Protection Plans allow 24/7 support for wandering behaviors. Emergency Response Teams provide first responders with all the important details your child may not be able to share themselves. This includes a complete health profile and your emergency contact information. The Emergency Response Team will also notify you so you can be by your child’s side more quickly.

In particular, the MedicAlert Safe & Found program is an important benefit for autistic children and their families. This gives you even more support and resources in case of a wandering episode. A MedicAlert ID with a Protection Plan can be your child's voice when they aren't able to be with you. With many options, it's easy to find a medical ID that is comfortable for children who may experience sensory difficulties.

Why do autistic children wander?

Sometimes the best key to helping a child with challenging behavior is understanding what’s behind it. Behavior is communication, and even behaviors like wandering can communicate something important. For example, your child might be struggling with an unmet need, such as the need for more or less stimulation. 

There are some common reasons an autistic child might wander, according to the Child Mind Institute:

  • Sensory overload- trying to escape unpleasant stimuli such as loud noises
  • Following an intense focus on a special interest, such as watching cars drive by
  • Trying to get to a favorite area such as a playground
  • Avoiding anxiety due to certain situations, for example, school demands
  • Simply enjoying movement and exploration

Many of these reasons for wandering have a common root in repetitive behaviors, which are very common in autistic children. You may notice that your child follows repetitive patterns like seeking the same routines and rituals. Intense interests can also be a part of this. These repetitive patterns can hold clues to why an autistic child might unexpectedly be drawn to wander away from a safe environment– and toward an area or item of interest.

When an autistic child’s focus is drawn to the movement and patterns of water or traffic, the combination can be deadly: the National Autism Association reports that 71% of fatal outcomes are due to drowning, and 18% due to traffic incidents.

How can the risk of wandering be reduced?

Now that you understand some of the reasons behind wandering, you’re better prepared to offer solutions to prevent it. A helpful first step is identifying needs– if a child is frequently attempting to avoid sensory overload, for example, creating a quiet environment or offering modifications like noise-canceling earplugs or headphones can reduce difficulty. 

Working with other adults responsible for your child, such as teachers, can also help create strategies to meet needs and reduce wandering. For example, if visual schedules are helpful for your child, using one to explain that it’s not time for a preferred activity yet, but it will be later, can be included in an IEP or 504 plan.

Besides meeting the needs that lead to wandering behavior, there are some other key steps you can take.

  • Enroll your child in swim lessons- learning swimming and water safety reduces any drowning risk
  • Teach your child about wandering risks- as appropriate, reinforcing safety and discouraging wandering regularly, using tools such as stories, toys, and other developmentally appropriate approaches may decrease the likelihood of wandering
  • Ensure your home is secured- locks that are difficult to reach and open, and home alarm systems or battery-operated door and window alarms can reduce the chances of a child leaving the house unsupervised
  • Alert local first responders- talking to your local police, fire department, and paramedics allows you to make your child and your contact info familiar to them in case of wandering
  • Alert neighbors you trust- explaining the potential for your child’s wandering behaviors can create a community network of adults that know to watch for your child
  • Develop clear communication with other responsible adults- it’s easy to assume another adult or parent is watching your child, especially in a chaotic environment; using an agreed-on keyword or a phrase like “you’re on duty” or “tag, you’re it” can help ensure someone always has eyes on your child

How can I protect my loved one?

Sometimes wandering happens despite a parent’s best efforts to prevent it. In addition to the steps discussed above, a medical ID is an important tool that protects your child in the event of wandering. Depending on the child’s needs, these can be worn or attached to clothing or personal items. MedicAlert also offers Smart IDs that use QR code technology to include detailed information such as a complete health history to first responders. 

Using a globally recognized MedicAlert ID in combination with a Protection Plan offers an extra layer of protection and support for autistic children and their families. With a Protection Plan that includes 24/7 wandering support, your child can benefit from MedicAlert’s Safe & Found program. This program provides additional services in case of a wandering emergency. A Protection Plan also can offer:

  • A digital health profile with allergies, medical and surgical history, vaccinations, and more– available anytime, anywhere
  • A printable patient health profile that you can use for medical appointments
  • A 24/7 Emergency Response Team to interface with first responders on your behalf, including sharing information important to your child’s care
  • Emergency contact notification, so you can be with your child quickly in an emergency
  • Additional options like document storage (includes medical device instructions), 24/7 physician notification of emergencies, and storage of advanced directives

You can read more and sign up for a Protection Plan here.

How does MedicAlert’s Safe & Found program work?

MedicAlert’s Safe & Found program works tirelessly 24/7 to identify members reported as missing and to reunite them with their families. It is an option available to you with membership in a Protection Plan program. While the MedicAlert ID alone offers a way to communicate important information clearly to first responders, the Safe & Found program goes beyond this benefit to include:

  • Creation and distribution of missing person flyers to local authorities
  • Notification of emergency contacts
  • Relaying critical medical and identifying information to EMS, police, and local medical facilities so they know to watch for your child

To further support the success of this program, MedicAlert also offers a program called L.E.A.P. to law enforcement organizations. This program provides resources and training to law enforcement to help them work with the local community of people who are at risk of wandering. It also helps them to learn about MedicAlert IDs and accompanying Protection Plans.

Peace of mind with the Safe & Found program.

As a parent, protecting your child is always your number one concern. The risk of wandering and the worry that goes along with it can affect your peace of mind. With MedicAlert IDs, Protection Plans, and the Safe & Found program, you don’t have to face this concern alone. Instead, along with millions of other parents who trust MedicAlert, you can be confident that you have 24/7 support on your side to help ensure your child’s safety and reunite them with you if they wander. Knowing this, and having a voice that can speak for you in an emergency if you aren’t with your child, can help restore your peace of mind.

Sources: Autism and Wandering by Child Mind Institute, What is Neurodiversity?, Autism Safety Facts, National Autism Association, NAA Caregiver Checklist, Repetitive Behaviors and ‘Stimming’ in Autism ExplainedIEPs and 504 Differences