Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.
When parents or caregivers of children or adults with autism spectrum disorder call 911, they often call to report that their autistic family member is wandering (also known as eloping) from a safe location, their home, or at school. The autistic person may run away from adults in the community, leave school without permission, or escape their houses when no one is looking. Wandering can be dangerous, as it puts the autistic individual in danger for harm or injury.
Effects of wandering on parents
Parents may feel that they cannot go out into the community and have trouble sleeping. They experience fear and anxiety that their children will escape.
Why autistic children wander
There are a number of reasons why children choose to elope:
- Autistic children tend to become overwhelmed in some situations by sensory overload and escape to seek a quiet place where they can calm down
- The kids may have a favourite location where they want to go
- They seek an escape from demands and anxieties at home
- They are focused on a specific topic outside the home
- The children are curious and want to explore, unaware of the dangers around them
- Children want to explore something new and different, such as a creek
Facts about wandering
- 49 percent of parents of autistic children reported that their child had tried to wander, also known as eloping, at least one time after they were age 4
- Parents reported that they had close calls with the risk of drowning for 24 percent of the children
- The risk of traffic injuries for 65 percent of the children, and parents report near misses in traffic
- Autistic kids are more likely to wander from houses and to a lesser extent, from schools and stores
- Autistic children often elope when their parents are sleeping
- Half of wandering kids disappeared for long enough to cause significant worry in their caregivers, who say that wandering is the most stressful situation that they have to deal with in their autistic children
- 50 percent of parents report that they do not have any help or guidance on how to cope with the situation, while only 19 percent of received support from a mental health professional or psychologist, and 14 percent received guidance from a doctor or paediatrician
There are some steps that parents can take to try to prevent this distressing behavior.
Key people should be told about the risk of elopement. Caregivers can educate family members, neighbors, and people who often interact with the child so that they are aware of the risk of wandering. They should be encouraged to stop the child if the child is found without an adult. Some autistic children can understand the symbol for “Safe Place” in case they get lost and can be taught to stay put until someone they know arrives to take them home.
Parents can also put ID bracelets or identification markers on the child or their clothing. Other options are a using an app on the kid’s phone.
Talk about rules, safety concerns, and give examples of what could happen: Parents need to regularly explain the rules about eloping and emphasize the importance of the autistic child telling others where he is going.
Visual reminders can help autistic children to realize that they should not wander off and can reinforce that to autistic children that wandering is not an option.
Parents can reinforce this by regularly taking about safety concerns and giving examples of what could happen. Line drawings can be used to reinforce the idea staying with the autistic kid's loved ones is better than getting lost.
Unfortunately, some autistic children do not understand these concepts. Autistic girls and boys do not always understand that they should not talk to strangers, or understand why they should not go to strange places alone. Parents may need to install safety locks to protect them.
The home should be secure: The home and garden should be checked for possible escape routes and safety measures need to be put into place. Parents should make sure doors and windows can be locked safety and are not easy to be open. More safety latches and locks can be put in place.
The fencing around the home should be checked to make sure the area is secure. Home pools should be drained or fenced off.
Safety should also be assured when out in the community: On family outings, parents and children can wear identically colored shirts while on an outing that will help the autistic child can safely stand out.
Ensure that the children have a good night’s sleep: Parents can try to establish regular sleep patterns and avoid giving their children caffeinated drinks before bedtime. Some children with autism may have disturbed sleep patterns. Parents should consult with a physician or sleep specialist if their child has difficulties sleeping at night.
Teach the child what to do if they become lost: Many autistic children have difficulty communicating or are non-verbal, but some of these kids can be taught how to answer specific questions if they become lost. Parents may have to practice many times so that their child learns how to answer with their name, address, and phone number.
Autism Speaks has a list of all kinds of safety products. Here are some examples of products that are currently available:
- Safety bands that contain information on the childs medical and safety needs which the child cannot remove
- A safety seatbelt release cover that prevents children from unbuckling their seatbelts
- wearable GPS and voice monitoring device that connects to a customer care team, can notify families when children wander
- An Autism ID Card
- Movies showing teens and adults with ASD how to interact safely with police with an teaching tool
- Law enforcement programs that electronically track people with Alzheimer's and special needs
- Internet software is available to help parents gather information and track their kids
- a fireplace hearth cover that protects autistic kids
- Harnesses for older children with autism
- A pocket guide that helps autistic individuals with challenges such as riding on public transportation
- Soft cotton sleepwear without rough seams or zippers in the back
- Protective headgear
- Locator bracelets
- Temporary tattoes with "if I am lost, please help me be found" with the home phone number
- Bed tents
- Specially designed doors to prevent escapes
- Custom engraved medical ID bracelets, shoe alert tags
- Special cards to help people communicate with police and medical personnel
The National Autism Association also has a Big Red Safety Store with many related items.
Coming together as a community to address wandering, Autism Society
Four Tips to Keep a Child With Autism Safe From Wandering, Ashy Vahabzadeh, M.D., Psychology Today
Autism and Wandering and How to Prevent It, Leslie Cawley, Divine Caroline
Study: Why Do Autistic Children Wander and Bolt from Safe Places, Rehabcare International
© 2014 Carola Finch
Chantelle Porter from Ann Arbor on July 06, 2015:
My son is a wanderer. Very helpful article.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 07, 2014:
Thank you for this wise counsel in the interest of our autistic children. The LifePROTEKT sounds like something every parent should have.
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on May 06, 2014:
Thanks for the info, Karen. There are some amazing technologies out there.
Martin D Gardner from Virginia Beach on May 03, 2014:
Very infomative hub. Some sheriffs departments also offer project lifesaver devices for autistic children and adults. Thanks for addressing this important issue.