DES offers tips on finding missing family members with cognitive disabilities

Guest Column

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Knudson is Fort Meade’s provost marshal and director of the Directorate of Emergency Services.

By Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Knudson, Director, Directorate of Emergency Services

Last Friday, the Directorate of Emergency Services team helped reunite a missing autistic boy with his parents.

Sometime during the previous night, he left his house and ultimately made his way off the installation. If you asked him, the boy would say he was lost; he knew exactly what he was doing, where he was and where he was going.

However, he had not told his parents, so they understandably were very concerned about his whereabouts.

Fortunately, the parents notified police and provided critical information, including a good description and photo, which allowed DES searchers to quickly identify a boy matching their son’s description, confirm his identity and get him back to his family.

This emotional incident, which fortunately had a happy ending, is indicative of a problem faced every day by families with child or adult family members with cognitive, intellectual or developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder or Alzheimer’s.

Organizations such as Autism Speaks and the Kennedy Krieger Institute have identified that about 49 percent of children with autism attempt to elope from a safe environment. The Alzheimer’s Association has found that roughly 60 percent of adults with dementia will also wander.

Wandering incidents tend to occur more frequently in warmer months, as we will experience shortly.

Multiple organizations, including Pathfinders for Autism and the Alzheimer’s Association, provide resources online to help mitigate or prevent wandering.

DES would like to provide some recommendations on how to prepare for a wandering incident that requires an assisted response.

Before a wandering incident occurs, you can take proactive steps that will assist first responders to search for family members.

  • If you live on post, notify DES that you have a child or adult with a cognitive, intellectual or developmental disability that we can include in our database.

If we need to respond, we will already have critical information about your family member before arriving at your house, which will facilitate a quicker, more deliberate search. If you live off post, check with your police department or 911 call center to see if they offer the same capability.

  • Consolidate important information about your family member that will aid searchers. Most important is a recent photograph. We will want to know the likely locations your family member might go, like a friend’s or relative’s house, favorite place, or places they wandered to previously.

We will also want to know their likes, dislikes and triggers, specifically involving places or things that might attract them. We will need to know how they might respond to police or firefighters. We will also need to know whether they will be able to respond to their name, answer questions and communicate their status.

  • Families should develop a plan for how they will respond to a wandering child or adult, including how and when they request support. This should be shared with family, friends and neighbors.

Also, share with first responders, especially if you have planned and practiced a link-up location away from the home. If you want to practice calling 911, we ask that you not actually dial 911.

  • Families should also discuss or practice interacting with first responders with their child or adult. Family members who might wander should know to obey directions, specifically showing hands, staying in place, and not trying to touch the first responder.

If you believe your child or adult may become combative, silent or argumentative, run away or attempt to approach or hug a first responder, tell first responders so we can tailor our approach appropriately.

Should a wandering incident occur, the family should take immediate action.

  • Call 911 immediately. We understand that you may delay because you may find your family member right after calling 911. Do not delay; every minute is time lost for first responders to help find your family member.

Call 911 before you begin searching on your own.

  • When you call, provide all information as completely and truthfully as possible. We understand you may be distraught or embarrassed about what is happening. However, our only concern is finding your missing family member.

We will need to know details such as how long your family member has been gone and what their particular conditions are.

  • First responders will want to know what your family member is wearing and has with them. If your family member has a cellphone, we will want to know the phone number and carrier so we can attempt to call or ping it.

We will also want to know if your family member has any anti-wandering technology, such as a Project Lifesaver tracker, or anti-wandering app on their cellphone.

We will want to know if they have a credit card on them so we can, through the family, attempt to identify locations they use it.

Finally, we will want to know if they have any identification on them such as an ID card, bracelet or clothing tag in case they cannot identify themselves.

  • Understand that we will likely keep at least one person with you during the search to facilitate communication and support. After your family member is found, we will also assist in linking you up with other on-post support agencies and organizations.

A wandering incident can be a very emotionally traumatic situation for the individual and the family. Should you find that one of your family members has wandered, contact 911 so that we can immediately help you in the search.

Your DES team is here to help bring such an incident to a positive conclusion — a missing child or adult reunited with their family.

This article draws information from Pathfinders for Autism, available at and, and Alzheimer’s Association, available at

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