Surviving the Wandering Nightmare
It is unthinkable. It is every parent’s worst fear. For a special needs parent or caretaker the mere thought of it can be crippling. You let your guard down for a moment. You turn your attention away from your loved one for an instant. He is gone.
As a police officer, I have seen that desperate look in the eyes of a parent many times. As a K9 handler, I have felt the almost unbearable burden of having a family’s entire world resting on my shoulders. As an Autism Dad, I have also felt the knee-buckling terror of losing my child.
For neurotypical families, the dangers of wandering start to subside as their children reach the age of 5 or 6 years old. For many special needs parents and caretakers, however, the dangers remain throughout the teenage years and, often, well into adulthood.
The immediate actions taken by the caregiver of a wandering special needs individual are critical to the success or failure of the subsequent search. Unnecessary delays, inaccurate communication, or emotional paralysis can literally mean the difference between life and death. In this article, I will offer insights into the process of a missing persons search from the perspective of the police. I will also offer suggestions to more efficiently communicate with first responders and search personnel to maximize the chances for a successful outcome to our worst nightmare: a missing loved one with special needs.
For the purposes of this article, I will use the most typical wandering scenario: an individual wandering from his own home. Obviously, true to its name, ASD encompasses a spectrum of functional, behavioral and emotional challenges. I can only speak generally and offer some thoughts that are relevant to the largest possible segment of our community. I freely acknowledge that a lot of this is easier said than done. I have made many of the mistakes that I will mention and I, of all people, should know better. Please understand, I am not here to judge and I do not claim to know it all.
Time is the enemy
It is human nature, once the realization hits you that your loved one is missing, to start looking for him. The emotional process seems to include inherent barriers of acknowledgment that take time to break through. You first begin searching by yourself. Anywhere between two minutes (an eternity when your loved one is missing) and 10 minutes into your search you may think to enlist the help of your spouse, other children and members of your immediate family. Panic sets in and logical thinking becomes difficult. You check and recheck areas of your home and yard. Your search is random and inefficient. Then your imagination starts to run away. To be blunt: You are flailing much like a swimmer in a riptide. But the swimmer who gains control of his emotions and begins to think rationally is more likely to survive the ordeal.
Keep in mind that it is quite common to locate a “missing” special needs individual inside their home. Often they crawl into or under a bed, into a closet or behind furniture. They may be embarrassed, spiteful or scared. Sometimes they fall asleep, oblivious to the chaos around them. I have been involved with several large-scale missing persons searches that ended with a radio transmission advising the individual was found asleep in their room. Rule out this possibility quickly and efficiently, then ...
Call the Police!
I have been dispatched to searches HOURS old. I have seen families canvass neighborhoods on foot and in cars for hours, in full panic mode, before it occurs to them to report the matter to their police department. For some, a sense of embarrassment and failure as parents demands that they keep the matter private. For others, a fear of some legal ramification delays their action. For others still, it simply does not enter into their minds. When I briefly lost my son  in a shopping mall a few years ago, I remember dreading the embarrassment among my peers. “I’m a cop. I don’t lose my kid.” I’m ashamed that emotion even entered my mind, but it is what it is. We are all human.
There are many reasons why delay at this stage is dangerous. Obviously, the longer the individual is missing the higher the chances he will encounter danger. As time increases, so does the distance he can travel. Daylight is precious in search work and must be treated as such.
Police tracking dogs are trained to smell and follow human scent. Although some police dogs, such as bloodhounds and some patrol dogs, can be trained for scent discrimination (ignoring all scents except the one presented to them through a scent article such as a worn shirt or hat), most are trained to track the freshest scent available to them. If a K9 officer brings his partner to your backyard and commands him to “track,” who will he be tracking—your missing loved one or you and your family who walked around the yard countless times before calling the police?
Police, Fire and EMS departments have a vast array of resources and experience to bring to the table. The most valuable, however, is manpower. We are not coming to judge you and your family. We are here to help you. CALL US RIGHT AWAY.
Keep It Together
The minutes that pass as you wait for the police to arrive will be the longest of your life. It is unrealistic and unreasonable for me to suggest that you just sit and wait. Of course, you are going to keep looking for your loved one. But understand that the police will need quite a bit of information about you and your loved one when they arrive and you will be in no mood and no frame of mind to sit and provide this information when someone you love is missing. It will prove invaluable if you can prepare a lot of this information before hand and have it ready in case of such an emergency. Early in my K9 career I was given this Wanderer’s Information Sheet . It is designed to cover Dementia patients as well as people with ASD. Just compete what is relevant. I suggest filling it out with as much detail as possible and stashing several copies in your home, your car, and with your extended family.
Know Your Loved One
A lot of the information on the Wanderer’s Information Sheet  is straightforward, identifying information for your loved one. Some of it, however, is not as intuitive and may not occur to the responding police officer to ask, unless he/she is experienced with ASD and missing persons searches. Offering this information will expedite the process.
Below is a list of questions you should not only be prepared to answer about your loved one, but prepared to proactively offer to the police (Don’t assume the responding officer will think to ask these questions):
- Is he dressed appropriately for the weather?
- Will he keep clothing on appropriately (My son is notorious for taking his shoes off whenever he gets the opportunity)?
- Does he understand DANGER (water, traffic, heights, strangers)?
- Would he know to dial 911 or seek help if in danger?
- Does he fear strangers? The police?
- What was his mindset before wandering? Was he being disciplined?
- Does he think he will be in trouble when he is found?
- What excites him or catches his eye (water, movement, colors, sounds)?
- Is he drawn to animals such as dogs?
- Is he repulsed by any sights, sounds, smells, etc.?
- Does he have a typical concept of warm and cold (would he seek shelter if cold and wet)?
- Would he respond to the following questions? What if they were asked in a way not familiar to him?
1. ”Where do you live” (as opposed to “What is your address?”)
2. ”What’s your name?”
3. ”Where are your mom and dad?”
4. ”What is your phone number”?
5. ”Are you OK?”
6. ”Do you need help?”
- Will he answer to his name if called by a stranger? What if it is phrased differently? (My son will not always answer if we yell, “Eric?” But he will almost always reply if we yell, “Eric, where are you?” and will reply 100% of the time if we yell, “Eric, say ‘yeah’”).
- Does he make any idiosyncratic noises (My son makes a distinct “EEEEE” sound when he gets excited)?
I think it’s very useful to proactively visit your local police, fire and EMS departments and introduce your loved one to as many officers as possible. This will serve a couple purposes: First, it will hopefully dampen any fears he has toward these officers. In addition, it will allow the officers to interact with you and your loved one and get a feel for his behavior and abilities. Remember, this may be the officers’ first experience with an individual on the autism spectrum.
It is also critical that you have easily accessible and up-to-date pictures of your loved one. You should keep both printed pictures and digital copies (saved on a flash drive) to ease the distribution to search personnel and the press if necessary.
The police will quickly establish a command post, probably in your home or close by. It is imperative that at least one family member remain at the command post to answer questions as they arise and maintain contact with friends, family, neighbors, etc.
An Incident Commander will be named. He/she will probably be a ranking police, fire or EMS officer. He/she will be responsible for coordinating the search effort and keeping track of the areas that have been and need to be searched. If family members and friends are assisting in the search effort, it is imperative that they coordinate and maintain contact with the Incident Commander in order to avoid redundantly searching some areas and mistakenly missing other areas. As time progresses the search will grow larger in terms of area to be covered and personnel and equipment involved.
Prepare yourself for an extremely phrenetic and chaotic scene. There may be rescue vehicles, legions of volunteers, even helicopters circling your home. It will overwhelm you if you let it. The Search and Rescue personnel should understand that the presence of so many vehicles and people around your home may very well frighten your loved one away if he makes his way back to the area. Don’t be afraid to mention that possibility and request that noise, emergency lights and extraneous personnel be moved from your property if at all possible.
Remember, we all get scared. It is a natural human emotion. Accept it and acknowledge it. But do not let it cripple you. There will be an army of volunteers ready to help you. Stay strong for your loved one and keep your composure. You are stronger than you think.
It pray that you never have to personally use this information. But I also pray that, if the unthinkable happens, this will help in some small way.