My son John is 19 and hangs on my side, often holding my hand in public. I do not worry about where he is even though he is non-verbal, cannot make a single sound, and is disabled. A couple of things are to credit with that trust, one John can no longer run; second, John understands spoken language. Despite his inability to have a conversation with me, I am able to talk to him and he understands.
For me, this is a huge miracle. When John was small, he could not understand any spoken words. I could say, “The house is on fire” or “Are you hungry?” and he would have the same look on his face. Blank. John did not fear anything or anyone. He was just as prone to follow a stranger as he was either parent. He did not fear busy streets or barking dogs. The things he did fear were odd, automatic doors for one, silverware for another.
Taking John out in public was like going into battle. We had to make plan A and plan B. Plan C was always the same, abort the mission. I knew the stores by heart, and told my family exactly which way we would walk. I knew if we did not walk the way John expected, he would do one of two things, have a melt down or run. Run he could and run he did. Taking John to new places, well I think our family earned metals for this. Most families like ours have that clutch and hold a child in place, safety straps, harnesses, and other tricks for holding your child, but what if they get lost, now what? Here are a few tips I learned over the years.
- Cameras on a phone are wonderful. Every time you go out, take a second to make two photos of your child. Up close and full body. If you child is lost for any length to time, you have a current photo to hand store personal or security. They have a clothing description, all you do is fill in height and weight, age and that your child is non-verbal, autistic, etc. This allows security to have an instant photo that can be transmitted through out a mall or amusement park in seconds. You know what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words and in this case, it really is. I truly think we all need to do this, even with neurotypical children.
- Red balloon method. You can use any color balloon, but a friend of mine always uses a red helium balloon tied to her son. She bought one of the at home helium tanks from a party store and a supply of red balloons. Her son loves balloons so her idea was to tie a balloon to his arm or belt loop on his jeans when they went out. As he is a runner, it was always easy to spot that bouncing balloon flying down store isles and corner him off at the pass. He is grown now like John, but I still see him dart past me in the grocery store, balloon flying high as he goes, and I usually can stop him. A still balloon gives Mom and Dad time to catch up to him.
- Cheap cell phones with pay as you go minutes. I keep one for John, and keep the ring tone turned up loud. I turn it on and drop it in his jeans pocket when we go out. He and I have talked about what to do if he is lost. I can call his phone and listen for the sound. John knows to stand still when the phone rings and wait for me to walk to him. Though we have never had to put this plan of action into work, we have practiced it at home and in public places. I would do this even with a child that does not understand, the ringing sound can help you locate a child who may be hiding in a clothing rack. If you have ever spent 30 minutes searching a store for a hiding child, you know how well this trick would pay off.
- There are more expensive and helpful tracking devices that can be worn, but for us, sensory issues did not allow John to wear such. I also tried using stickers on the back of John’s shirts with his name and my phone number. Sadly John just knew that sticker was back there and either had a melt down and rubbed against a shelf until the sticker came off. I did resort to temporary tattoos where you write in the child’s name and a contact number, but I don’t like ink on my child. The skin is transdermal and I did not like using a Sharpie on my son. Still, in a pinch, writing information can make a huge difference if a child is lost. No need for an expensive temporary tattoo, just draw a puzzle piece and write the world autism along with your information. A few colored pins and you are in business.
- Dog tags turned out to be our success. John has a passion for Army men and knew they wore dog tags. We went to the local pet store and had two tags made for John. One states that he is non-verbal, the second has our contact information on them. John was proud of his dog tags and finally, we had a means for marking our son as non-verbal. Some people have used medical alert bracelets with the same success.
- Business cards. Keep a supply of business cards on hand with a simple description of your child. One side can be about your child, the other about autism, or whatever your child’s disability is. These can be handed out quickly if your child is missing. Not all places have public address systems and this is a back up plan. They can also come in handy when you child is having a melt down in a public place and you don’t have time to educate the world on autism.
- The number one thing you can do for you and your child is getting to know the local law enforcement. Taking your child to meet the local police, as well as fire department can make a huge difference if anything ever goes wrong. Don’t wait until you need help to try and teach a crash course on autism. John and I visit a couple of times a year. The men and women in both the fire house and at the police station not only know what John looks like, they know his personality, and would know how to deal with him if he was lost or in trouble. Yes, it does help living in a small town, so this may not be truly practical for everyone. Still it is critical to make sure in your area first responders know and understand autism and other special needs issues.
A little planning, and with a few tricks up your sleeves, going out into public can be easier and little less frightening. Remember if all else fails, use plan C and try again tomorrow.