Wandering is a more common than you think for children with autism, especially in toddlers. As National Center for Missing and Exploited Children mentions:
- Nearly 49% of the children with autism engage in wandering behavior
- Over a third of those who wander are considered nonverbal.
- Wandering is considered one of the most stressful ASD behaviors
- 91% of ASD children’s deaths in the U.S. are caused by accidental drowning.
Under any type of adult supervision, these children will still find ways to wander, and higher risks are linked with autism severity. The difficulties with communication, and lack of safety awareness make wandering behavior dangerous, which then puts a greater and constant stress on the child’s family. Under such circumstances, AutismCare recommends parent and family employ following prevention advice and guidance to keep your children safe.
Wandering Prevention at Home
The following six tips are provided by the Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Coalition (known as AWAARE), and have been effective in helping reduce or prevent scenarios of wandering in various home settings.
- Secure your home by installing deadbolts that require keys on both sides, a security alarm system, installing door/window alarms, using Guardian locks on doors above your child’s reach, having a fenced in yard, using large “STOP” signs on doors and any other exits.
- If your child is a frequent wanderer, despite new security additions to your home, it may be wise to consider a tracking device the child will wear on a wrist or ankle that sends radio frequency to help locate them in the event they do wander. Following are 7 GPS tracking available on market: Amber Alert GPS, Pocket Finder, Filip, Trax, Be Luvv Guardian, Secure GPS eZoom, and Bikn. Before choosing a personal locating device, or GPS tracker, research each thoroughly to determine which will meet your specific needs.
- Provide ID bracelet or device that includes emergency contact information and children medical condition. In the event a child can’t tolerate wear a necklace or bracelet, consider a temporary tattoo or shoe ID tag that is visible and contains all of the necessary information.
- Swimming lessons are necessary and crucial for your child’s safety. While teaching your child how to swim will help them, it does not guarantee their safety in or near water. In addition to swimming lessons, teach your child about the dangers of the water and to emphasize they should only explore in controlled and adult-supervised settings.
- Keep your neighbors and caregivers informed of your child with autism’s tendency to wander. Be sure to provide nearby adults with your child’s updated photograph, a list of your child’s current interests that could be unsafe-especially if any neighbors have a pool and the child enjoys swimming and/or water. Doing so will facilitate and speed a search in the event that the child does wander.
Wandering Prevention at School
The following six steps can help reduce the possibility of a wandering scenario taking place at the child’s school. (AWAARE)
- Be sure all wandering tendencies are addressed in your child’s Individualized Education Program (or IEP). These should include any past scenarios, as well as what should be done if a scenario does occur while the child is at school.
- Discuss and review your at-risk child’s Functional Behavioral Assessment and Behavioral Intervention Plan to ensure the underlying reasons for wandering/bolting are addressed.
- Review the school’s current security measures around school grounds to ensure that they are in place. Request any changes you believe may be necessary to ensure your child does not wander away.
- Inform school staff members of any known triggers that could lead to your child fleeing (loud noises, meltdowns, etc.), and working to prevent and/or appropriately respond to those episodes
- If your child has had multiple occasions of wandering, request 1:1 assistance.
- Create a ‘safe place’ that your child can run to, so they stay within the building and can be easily found, in the event they do bolt due to fear or stress. Remind school staff that seclusion rooms, such as closets, can be dangerous, inhumane, and actually cause bolting behaviors.
When a Child Does Wander
If you have taken all the necessary precautions, and your child still wander, call loved ones and neighbors to help you begin searching. Be sure to
1. Remain composed.
2. Immediately call 911 when your child or loved one is missing from home.
3. Inform first responders and search angels of the most likely places your child may go within the neighborhood, along with the most dangerous places nearby (ponds, lakes, pools, etc.). The following attractions should be searched immediately due to interests and stimulations they present to a child with autism:
- Trains/train track
- Large equipment
- Fire trucks
- Bright lights
- Traffic signals
Autism Speaks. (2015). “Preventing Wandering: Resources for Parents and First Responders”.
AWAARE Collaboration. (2015). “About Autism-Related Wandering”.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (2015). “Missing Children With Autism”.