Having a child who is a runner / escape artist is extremely challenging. Add into that mix a lack of danger awareness it gets very stressful very quickly. I often describe my youngest as a ‘handful’ and I really mean it. My hand is always holding his when we are out. I have become very good at packing my shopping one handed at the supermarket.
All children will run off, wander or have a lack danger awareness when they are young but for most this is short lived. However, some of our kids really do lack basic danger awareness. They will happily run directly in front of a car at any given opportunity. Totally oblivious to the danger that car poses.
I thought my eldest was a challenge but after having his brother I realised he really wasn’t. The difference is my youngest will take any opportunity to escape, run or put himself in danger. My eldest, whilst lacking some danger awareness, was not constantly putting himself in danger.
Why is my child running off?
There can be many different reasons your child will run or wander off. Some common reasons for autistic children can be:
- Sometimes they are easily distracted by something such as a ball and will follow it into the road.
- They want to explore something.
- It can be anxiety related and a flight response to something.
- Some children will think its is funny to run off at any opportunity. This can become a game to them.
- It can be about needing control.
It’s good to have an idea what triggers your child to run so you are more ready for when it may happen.
Other people often just don’t get it!
One thing I find is people don’t tend to believe me when I say my son will run off until they see or experience it for themselves. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have asked someone to hold his hand for a moment as I do something only to find him running off as the person has let go of his hand. Honestly I don’t want to be holding my child’s hand the entire time we are out. I would love to give him more freedom but I am acutely aware of the consequences.
When you experience those moments your child has run into the road (or even just heading for it) your heart really does stop. It is an awful feeling no one wants to experience. Knowing your child doesn’t understand the danger and knowing they won’t stop for a car is terrifying.
I know the way people judge me when I shout at my child to stop or when I am chasing him down the street. It always amazes me how many people just watch you run past them with no response to grab the child they saw fly past them towards a river or road. Having said that I know my response is lightning quick these days because it has to be.
It is hard enough being on edge when you are out just to keep your child safe, so it can be particularly stressful when friends / family don’t really get it. Well meaning questions about why can’t he run ahead with the other kids or saying I am watching him too much can be really upsetting. This is why having groups of other SEN parents to talk to is so valuable because they do get it.
Always remember you know your child best. When you are doing something for their safety that is more important than judgment from others.
How do you keep a runner with no danger awareness safe?
For me one of the hardest aspects of having a runner is the constant state of high alert I need to be in. Naturally we adapt our home and you get to know when you can relax a little. But when we are out I need to know where he is, where the exits are, what dangers are in the vicinity. You start to become a great risk assessor and know what is happening around you at all times. This however comes at a price, stress and hypervigilance are exhausting. When you are exhausted you don’t function as well as you could. This is also why you need to have a tag team, thankful I have this in my husband when we are out together we know we need to take turns being alert and the same goes for in the house.
If you have a child who has limited danger awareness having support from more than one person really does help. If they have 1-1 support at school having different people do that throughout the day can be really beneficial. I know that when you are the only person responsible for their safety you get stressed over the day, this then impacts you and the child. Sadly it can take time to get that tag team of people that ‘get it’ in place. It also does wonders for your own mental health when other people do see that its not ‘you’ and there is a danger awareness issue.
Get good at risk assessments- are they likely to go out a window- then get window locks on. Do you need extra catches and locks on doors at a height they can’t reach. Do you need a padlock on the garden gate. Most of us baby and toddler proof our homes but for some children this is required for longer.
Some children may need to stay in a pram longer, you can get specialist prams from wheelchair services. Others will do well with reigns or wrist reigns. Others will need constant hand holding, although this may often become wrist holding or clothing holding at times. Additional clips for car seats can also be helpful if you have an escape artist on your hands.
Know your limits
There are some things I won’t do when I have both boys on my own like going to a large play park that has several gates. I know in a busy environment I won’t be able to keep track of both boys and that gates are often left open by others. I won’t go to playgrounds without fences. If my friends want to take all the kids to the downs where there are roads everywhere I won’t go with the kids.
Sometimes places where there will be lots of adults are the worst. Such as a BBQ / party/ family gathering because I know my son will be looking for an escape and also that all the adults will assume someone else is watching when likely no one is.
Whilst I am a big believer in doing the hard things it is also important to recognized the things you can’t manage alone. Say no to things you don’t think are safe and pick the things that do work. Like the playpark with just one gate so I can then position myself near that exit and give my son a bit more freedom.
I like to dress my son in bright clothes (red / orange) if we are going somewhere busy this means they are easier to spot when flying round a soft play centre.
Think about where you are going and where there may be triggers / dangers and highlight them where appropriate. Many of our kids will learn the danger awareness they may just take a bit longer.
If my son was to get lost we have the additional challenge that he wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively with other people. When you are in a busy place like a theme park it is always a good idea to place a sticker on your child’s back (where they can’t reach) with your phone number on it. If you have a persistent runner it can be worth getting a wrist band with your contact details on. For older children it may be necessary to use GPS trackers in watches or phones to help keep them safe.
Do you have any tips to help parents of runners / escape artists? Let us know in the comments.