Wandering in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Wandering ImageChildren with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have poor social and communication skills. Many are not aware of their own safety or able to provide first responders with their name, address, or phone number. Because of these reasons, wandering continues to pose a danger beyond the toddler years. The risk of wandering increases depending on the child’s condition.

The Dangers of Wandering

About half of all children with ASD attempt to wander away from safe, supervised settings such as their home or school. Wandering can pose the following dangers:

  • Exposure to the elements—hypothermia, sunburn, dehydration
  • Traffic injuries
  • Falls
  • Negative encounters with strangers
  • Negative encounters with law enforcement
  • Drowning

Luckily, there are steps that parents and caregivers can take to prevent wandering and respond to it if it happens.

Identifying Triggers

Children with ASD enjoy the comfort of their routines so it is not surprising that most cases of wandering are triggered by changes in a child’s routine. Examples of triggers include changes that can come about:

  • During warmer months, especially if changes are made to the home such as opening windows and doors
  • On holidays
  • In settings that are new to the child, such as after moving to a new home or while on vacation
  • During transition times in between classes at school
  • During times of stress when the child may feel like fleeing

Prevention Strategies

If your child is unable to understand personal safety, you may want to consider these prevention strategies:

  • Secure your home with devices such as dead bolt locks, a home security system, alarms on doors and windows, and fences
  • Consider buying a tracking device and talking to your local law enforcement agency about how they might use it
  • Have your child wear a medical alert bracelet with identifying information
  • Teach your child how to swim or enroll your child in swimming lessons to prevent drowning
  • Get to know your neighbors and ask them to call you if they see your child wandering from home
  • Provide first responders with identifying information that describes your child in the event your child does wander
  • Provide first responders with information about points of interest that might attract your child and cause your child to wander

Search Water First!

It is important to know what to do in the event wandering happens.

If your child has wandered, follow these steps:

  1. Stay calm
  2. Call for emergency help right away
  3. Search nearby areas of water first

Because children with ASD are attracted to water, areas that contain water should always be the first place you should look.

Wandering Prevention Devices

In 2011, the National Autism Association created the Big Red Safety Box. The program provides caregivers with free tools and educational materials related to wandering. Free toolkits are also available for first responders. To learn more, visit http://awaare.nationalautismassociation.org

In the future, laws may be passed that fund devices for children with ASD to address the problem of wandering. For now, parents must learn to prevent wandering and be prepared in the event that it occurs.

RESOURCES:

National Autism Association
http://nationalautismassociation.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

References:

12 ways to prevent, and respond to, ASD wandering. National Autism Association website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed February 11, 2016.
Family wandering emergency plan. AWAARE Collaboration website. Available at:
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Accessed February 11, 2016.
New data shows half of all children with autism wander and bolt from safe places. Autism Speaks website. Available at:
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Published April 22, 2011. Accessed February 11, 2016.
Preventing wandering. Autism Speaks website. Available at:
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Accessed February 11, 2016.
Wandering and autism: What we know/What we need. Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Published July 9, 2013. Accessed February 11, 2016.
Wandering tips from the Autism Speaks community! Autism Speaks website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed February 11, 2016.
Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 7/24/2014

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