Wandering and Autism: How Can We Manage It?
Wandering, also called bolting or elopement, is common among children and individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
In fact, research shows that of more than 1,200 children, about half had wandered off at least once after the age of four. The community didn’t always know that wandering was a common problem, but research has proven otherwise.
This raises a significant and stressful concern for parents, family members, and caregivers, as many have gone missing long enough to trigger serious concern, and often into dangerous (or potentially dangerous) situations, like wandering into an area of traffic or water. Other common outcomes of wandering include dehydration, heat stroke, falls, hypothermia, physical restraint, and interactions with strangers.
ASD wandering behaviors are characterized by tendencies to bolt off to get something interesting or escape something uncomfortable. It’s often the individual’s way of communicating their needs and wants (or even dislikes), so it can happen anytime, even while under supervision.
Surprisingly, the study also reveals that numerous families report that they have never received professional guidance on how to handle or address the problem. To help, we’re outlining some essential information you need to know about wandering.
What Triggers Individuals With ASD to Wander?
The reasons behind why individuals with ASD leave safe spaces is a major issue. Are they escaping a tedious task or noisy environment? Are they heading somewhere they perceive to be fun? Are they eloping with a specific intention or without thought?
To be clear, researchers are still unsure of the concrete reasons. However, one dangerous (or potentially dangerous) situations, like wandering into an area of traffic or water. Other survey shows motivations identified by parents as to why their children wander:
They enjoy the adventure and exploration of different environments – even without a goal or intended destination.
They head to a familiar or favorite place that they enjoy so much.
They run away from an anxiety-filled or uneasy situation, like accomplishing school demands.
They pursue a topic of interest, like going to the train tracks if they like trains or public pools if they like water.
They escape uncomfortable stimuli, such as large crowds or noisy settings.
Individuals on the spectrum exhibit the tendency to have an impaired sense of danger. Situations that would cause other people to stop and hesitate simply don’t have the same effect on them.
While these are some of the most common apparent reasons for wandering, we want to stress that it’s going to be different for each individual and can only be confirmed through repeated observations.
How Can You Prevent Wandering From Happening?
Knowing what could potentially cause individuals with ASD to wander is important, but it’s only half of the story. It’s helpful to know that you can do something to protect them from such dangers. Here are some tips to consider.
1. Secure Your Home
Regardless of your child’s age, even if they’re an adult, make sure the entry and exit points are secure to prevent them from leaving the house unnoticed.
For example, you can Install locks that require keys on both sides, battery-operated alarms, or a home security system that alerts you if doors and windows have been abruptly opened. Every time something is opened, you’ll be alerted by a noise like a chiming or beeping.
Similarly, consider positioning hooks and locks above children’s reach and having fences around your yard. You can also put up visible stop signs on doors, gates, windows, and other exit points, to try to grab your child’s attention.
All of these preventative measures can help promote safety within your home and prevent your children from wandering off.
2. Use a Tracking Device or Wearable ID
Individuals with ASD are often unable to communicate important details and feelings, especially during uncomfortable situations. That’s why it’s beneficial when they have tracking devices, wearable IDs, or other forms of identification on them.
Medical tags or ID bracelets with your details – name, contact numbers, home address, and email address – will make it easier for people to reach out to you.
If your child is uncomfortable with wearables, consider having their name marked in their clothing or put ID cards in their pockets.
Make sure these modern devices are turned on as often as possible, especially when you’re headed out into public settings. Make it as easy as possible for a complete stranger to identify your child and understand that they’ve wandered off without adult supervision. Children with autism will rarely provide their own information, if ever.
3. Enroll Them in Swimming Lessons
The National Autism Association reports that drowning is the leading lethal outcome of wandering incidents. Thus, it’s beneficial to enroll your child in swimming lessons. Note that this doesn’t guarantee that your child is safe in the water. It does, however, increase their chances of knowing how to respond should they get into the water unexpectedly.
To find special needs swimming lessons in your area, check out the list of YMCA locations or visit the National Autism Swimming Instructions. Be sure that your child receives training on how to swim with clothes and shoes on, as this is a very different sensation compared to being in the water in your swimsuit.
Similarly, if you own a pool at home, be sure to fence it with gates that self-close and self-latch. If your neighbors have pools, advise them of safety precautions should your child wander in their area.
Lastly, remove any toys or items that may attract your child within the pool area, especially when it’s not in use.
4. Alert Neighbors and First Responders
Proactive is always better than reactive. Trusted neighbors and first responders should be informed of your child’s wandering tendencies, so they’ll know how to address this if they see them wandering.
Provide an introductory handout with a recent photograph and relevant descriptions like scars, birthmarks, and unique behaviors. Share details specific to your child — like their favorite toys, characters, attractions, possible triggers, and preferred method of communication. Print out a guide of all nearby water sources or high-risk locations which they can search first just in case.
Be sure to provide all your relevant details, as well as other family members, caregivers, or emergency contact persons. Ask them to reach out to you immediately when they see your child or adult within their home area or around the neighborhood.
5. Get Other People Involved
When the whole family, teachers, and trusted community members are aware of your child’s wandering tendencies, they become more engaged with and mindful of them. And when individuals with ASD are kept busy, it reduces their opportunity to elope on their own.
Before going out into public or attend any social gatherings, devise a plan with your child and family members on what rules to follow. For example, use the “tag” system to coordinate who must closely supervise your loved one. Also, consider the “bookends” approach during outdoor activities to ensure that one adult stays on each side of the child.
6. Review Emergency Resources Regularly
Being prepared is key in addressing wandering, so consider going through the helpful resources regularly.
Use and share the printable forms from Autism Speaks’ Safety Kit to develop a plan specific to your child’s or adult’s needs. This includes templates like Family Emergency Plan, Neighbor and School Alert Forms, Prevention Checklist, and Tips for First Responders.
Check out Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration for tools on how to establish and monitor objectives and guidelines about wandering.
Download and distribute the Big Red Safety Toolkit from the National Autism Association (NAA). This provides comprehensive guidance like the Sample Wandering Prevention Letter, Stop Sign Prompts, Swimming Lessons Tools, Tracking Technology Information, and a lot more.
When engaging with first responders, be sure to include this toolkit from NAA to help them better understand autism and equip them for how to respond to emergency situations.
7. Encourage a Consistent Sleep Schedule
With a regular sleep management plan, you might find it easier to manage your child’s autism and wandering tendencies. Steady sleep can help limit their hyperactivity and improve your interactions with them. Individuals with ASD may be struggling with sleeping problems, so you can always talk to your doctor if this is a concern.
What Should You Do When Wandering Happens?
Of course, no one wants their child to wander off alone.
However, if it happens, search nearby water resources first – pools, lakes, rivers, and the like. Check the tracking devices to monitor possible locations. Most importantly, be sure to alert neighbors, community members, and first responders immediately so they can contribute to the search. The faster you bring it to everyone’s attention, the likelier you’ll bring your child back safely.
The Bottom Line
Wandering is definitely a major concern experienced by parents and caregivers of individuals with ASD. But, know that you’re not alone and the whole ASD community is with you on this.
We also want you to know that research has found that wandering is not a result of inattentive or ineffective parenting. Caring for a child with autism can be incredibly frustrating and put a tremendous strain on the family and friends. Caregivers do the best they can, equipped with the knowledge and resources that they have.
Trust that you don’t have to do this alone. Behavior University helps parents and caregivers learn how to work with individuals with ASD. We offer a number of resources, including RBT training, mini courses, continuing education, and more. You can also learn more by visiting NAA and Autism Speaks for other helpful information.