Many years ago now, I spent my summers working at the Detroit Zoo. Those that have visited it can tell you that it covers a lot of ground with elaborate gardens adorning the paths to the animal enclosures. They can also tell you that it is easy to get turned around even with the map that they receive upon entering. And, the larger the number of park visitors the more difficult the logistics are to manage.
On busy days, it was common for several lost, terrified and crying children to approach just our stand to ask for help. The number of lost children park-wide was much larger. From experience, I recommend the following precautions and procedures for your consideration when you are visiting the zoo or any large public place:
1) Quiz your child about your name (first and last) and what you are wearing (color and any unique identifier) just before you enter the park. If they are old enough to know your cell phone number, quiz them on that, too. A name, number, and a description of mom or dad is the first thing for which we ask and the information that is disseminated throughout the park during our search. If they recite the information aloud they are more likely to remember it when they are under stress.
2) Review with them the procedure they are to follow if they become separated from your group. Good strategies include approaching a security guard or going to the nearest concession/souvenir stand employee and asking for help. Point out a security guard and an employee to your child so that they become familiar with their uniforms. For older children, designate a family meeting place where they are to go and wait for you. A moving target is more difficult to find.
3) If your child is pre-verbal or non-verbal, PLEASE put your contact information on their person. This can be a 3×5 card on a yarn necklace, a medical alert bracelet/necklace, or tucked into a clear plastic pouch on a backpack. I also have seen small children in t-shirts that say, “I am non-verbal and autistic. If I am lost, please call …. ”
4) Although their use is somewhat controversial, use a child harness. They are much cuter than they used to be and relatively inexpensive.
It has been 20 years and I still vividly remember one 2 year old boy that had become separated from his mother at the farmyard. He had followed a “mom” that he thought was his to another exhibit. Once he realized his mistake, he did not have the cognitive or verbal ability to ask for help. He just ran, crying, and searching for his mom. In the meantime, Mom had been searching frantically for him. I have often wondered what kind of psychological after-shocks that little boy experienced. Upon reflection now that I have my own child, I would rather sort out the emotional ramifications from wearing a harness than from the terror of not being able to communicate and being lost.
5) Try to remember that most children do not choose to become “lost”. They usually have just been caught up in the moment and lost track of you. If they are afraid of being scolded for getting lost they will take longer to get help. Upon reunification, take a breath and smile. Your child will be looking for facial cues indicating how much trouble they are in. Hug them. Tell them that you are so glad that they have been found! Then, make a better plan for sticking together.
No one wants their family outings marked by the stress of being separated from their child. However, it happens. A little preparation will go a long way in minimizing the time apart and the emotional consequences for everyone.Tags: Autistic Children, child harness, children, children with autism, Detroit Zoo, lost child, parents, safety, wandering