Search and Rescue and autistics

10 Dec

It is an unfortunate fact that we see a lot of lost kid stories in the autism community. Elopement–running away–is real and serious.

I’m always caught in what to do when these stories come up in the media. The stories affect me greatly as this is one of the big fears of an autism parent. It affects me even more when I think of the fear for the lost autistic. I remember being lost. I remember the terror. Most of the stories area about kids, and I know I was a much more capable kid than many of the autistics mentioned in those news stories. I can only imagine how terrifying it must be for the lost autistic. I feel like anything I write could trivialize their experiences.

I think I have to get over that. When I talk to the search and rescue people, they tell me it is valuable to raise awareness.

Of course, I’m prompted to write this after the recent, tragic story about James Delorey, an autistic child who was lost in the cold of Cape Breton, Canada for two nights. He was found, but still died of hypothermia.

I wanted to write about search and rescue, from the perspective of a parent of an autistic. But, this isn’t something I am really well read about. So, thankfully Alex Bain over at the RunMan blog have an excellent post on this as a part of their condolences to the family on Master Delorey’s passing. I am borrowing their YouTube content, but do take the time to read the post (and bookmark the blog–it is excellent!)

They were interviewed about search and rescue by CBC TV Compass News Interview and CBC Radio Island Morning interview.

Here is the video from the TV interview

Here is audio from the radio interview with Alex’s mother, Janet Norman Bain:

One piece of advice that Alex has given on his blog in the past, and in this post, is the use of an ID tag or bracelet. Here is an image of his bracelet:


I have one of these, as does everyone in my family. You can put these on shoes, cliping them to laces/straps. That’s where we put them since (a) I am forgetful and will leave it off much of the time and (b) my kid doesn’t like bracelets.

Alex gives more information about ID bracelets in another post on his blog.

As I said, and you have likely noticed, I don’t tend to write about these stories. Keeping stories like this in the news is important. It lets the rescue workers–and the people paying them–know they are valued.

Letting people know they are valued is important in general, in my opinion. I tend to contact (email or phone) people who do cool things–like researchers and, well, rescue workers. I’m not saying we need big phone-in campaigns for rescue workers, but if the inspiration strikes, don’t feel shy about dropping an email or commenting on a news story thanking them.

If I had a lost typical kid, I’d probably defer to the search and rescue team’s expertise. By that I mean that I would let them ask the questions about my child and trust that their experience and expertise would guide them to the correct questions (again, for the most part! I’d still have things to offer in addition to their questions)

However, with a disabled child, I keep thinking ahead as to what I would want to tell the Search and Rescue team. Really, I think that I’d need to educate the Search and Rescue team about how my kid is likely very different from any they’ve helped before.

First bit of advice–call the police sooner rather than later. The police won’t mind a second phone call with a message of “you don’t have to send a car, we found the kid”.

The sorts of things to tell the search and rescue team that I’ve thought of and heard from other parents (and let me know if you have others or find these wrong for any reason)

1) What is the person’s “cognitive” age. If they are looking for a 10 year old, they have certain expectations. If you tell them, “this kid cognitively is more like a 4 year old” that resets a lot of expectations.

You may have to tell this this repeatedly.

2) Can the person talk? They are expecting someone verbal.

3) if the person can talk, will he she respond to someone calling out their name? That can change the search methods dramatically.

4) What is the person wearing? One search and rescue person I talked to gave the example of a case where the team didn’t ask the parents this. They assumed that since the kid was about 10, he had dressed himself and that the parents probably didn’t recall what the kid was wearing. If you are dressing your kid still at that age, you may have a better idea what the kid is wearing.

5) Does the person have a restricted diet. If they find a lost kid and offer gatorade or some other rehydration drink, the person may reject it. Strongly. The person may reject other foods and/or drinks. They should be prepared for this.

6) Does the person have dietary restrictions. Whatever you think of diets like GFCF, if a person is on a restricted diet, the rescue workers should know not to offer certain foods.

7) Does the person have a fear of medical workers? A person in a white lab coat may seem nice and comforting to some people, but could be terrorizing to another. If so, the teams should know.

8) Does the person still wear a diaper? They (a) should be prepared with new ones and (b) may want to be on the lookout for a discarded diaper in their search. Some kids can take the diapers off, but can’t put pants/shoes back on. This would mean (a) look out for the clothes and (b) be prepared for the kid to show even more signs of exposure.

9) Is the person on any medications? What is the person like without the medication or on withdrawal from the medication?

10) Does the person have very special interests? This may be a good thing to coax a person out of hiding, and to calm the person after being found. Also, the rescue workers should know that they may have to discuss a single subject over and over until you show up.

11) Just because a person doesn’t talk doesn’t mean that he/she isn’t aware of what is going on.

12) What is calming to the person? Music may calm one person and irritate another. Some people might be sensory seekers, other sensory avoiders. The rescue workers should know for when they find the person.

These are just some of the suggestions I’ve heard from parents. Every person will be different and I know that search and rescue teams are aware of this. But, some people are very different from most of their experiences. Disabled kids, for example. Autistics. Be prepared to educate the search and rescue team about specific details about your loved one.

This is not my area of expertise by far. If you see anything that you think should be changed, don’t be shy. Let me know. I have tried to make this age-neutral, but as a parent I am biased towards talking about children and that probably shows.

Rescue workers are heroes. I think we all hurt a little when someone goes missing and we all cheer a little when someone is found, even if that person is thousands of miles away.

4 Responses to “Search and Rescue and autistics”

  1. IanH December 11, 2009 at 12:02 #


    I’m part of a search and rescue team in the UK and just wanted to say I’ll be passing this information on to our training officer.

    It’s worth noting that both in the UK and in North America SAR organisations collect statistics of the people they look for, where they were found and try to analyse them to make better predictions about where to look next time a ‘similar’ person is missing. Obviously everyone is different, but patterns can be recognised that really help when planning a search, deciding which areas to check first, how far to draw a perimeter and so on.

    As volunteers, it’s nice to know we’re appreciated…

  2. Tsu Dho Nimh December 12, 2009 at 21:16 #

    Even “normal” children often hide from searchers:

    1 – Because mom said “don’t talk to strangers”
    2 – They are afraid parents will be mad
    3 – They get hypothermic and confused
    4 – They are afraid of the search team’s uniforms and dogs (if any)
    5 – They crawl into a reasonably sheltered spot and fall asleep exhausted and don’t hear us.

    The Western US’s wilderness SAR teams are mostly volunteer, with sheriff teams doing the briefing and assigning areas … and they DO ask about that stuff. I think it’s on a form they fill out.

    • Sullivan December 14, 2009 at 17:31 #

      Tsu Dho Nimh,

      As I say, I am not an expert in this at all. I will say that a couple of the comments above resulted from a discussion with a search and rescue person a few years back. That person noted that the team made some assumptions based on age that were not valid.

  3. Prometheus December 15, 2009 at 00:43 #

    I recently had an opportunity to speak with the local SAR teams about this topic. Here is what they told me:

    [1] They work with the information they have – if they know just the age, they assume that the person’s behaviors will be typical of that age. If you want them to use different assumptions, you need to give them specific information.

    [2] Just saying that a child (or adult) is “autistic” is not very helpful because of both the wide variation in “autistic” behaviors and the even wider variation in SAR team members’ understanding of autism. BE SPECIFIC. If the missing person is afraid of dogs, let the team know – if they love dogs, that information is also useful. Note: this applies with ANY search and rescue, whether the victim is autistic or not.

    [3] Communicate with the SAR team supervisor directly, not with a police officer or team member. Information is lost with each “link” in the chain of communication, so going to the “boss” is best. If you can’t go to or call the supervisor, write everything down and give a copy to whoever you can. In fact, you should write it down and give it to them anyway – even if you have a face-to-face meeting.

    [4] In my area, the SAR team has a lot of experience looking for demented/Alzheimer’s disease patients. In some ways, this experience should serve them well if they have to search for an autistic person because many of the same problems – fearfulness, inability to communicate, etc. – are similar. If the SAR team you are working with seems to have a problem understanding what autism is all about, tell them that it is similar (for their purposes) to Alzheimer’s disease.

    [5] For people who are at a high risk of getting lost (whether they are autistic or not), there are a number of radio beacons available that can be used (by the parent or family member) to track down the wearer and there are even units which periodically transmit an ID number and the GPS coordinates of the wearer (one of these is small enough to put on a cat – I’ve done it with our cat). If the person gets out of range of the parent/family member’s receiver, it can still be picked up by airborne searchers.

    Hope that helps,


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