What to Do When Your Autistic Child Wanders

By sandra.caplesc…, 26 October, 2021
A little girl wandering in the woods.

As a parent, you probably know the feeling of panic when your child wanders out of sight. Kids can get lost anywhere: at the supermarket, in the park, or even in your neighborhood. This frightening feeling is one many parents of autistic children know too well. And a new study confirms this fear: wandering in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is common and dangerous. It puts a lot of stress on families.

First published in Pediatrics in 2012, the results of the study were significant. Half of the 1,218 children with ASD who participated in the study wandered from safe and supervised places at least once. Most of them go missing or find themselves in dangerous situations. Water poses a significant risk for autistic kids. 91% of accidental deaths for autistic children happen because they wander away from homes or schools. 32% of them are found near water, unattended. Children with ASD are drawn to water because of its calming and soothing sensory experience.

It's important to note that children do not wander because of bad parenting. The evidence points that half of the parents did not receive guidance on dealing with this situation or receive any help. Elopement is an important safety issue, and parents, teachers, and care providers should take steps to keep children safe.

Why Do Children Wander

Wandering, running, elopement in children—call it what you want, but it's a widespread occurrence. About half of the youth with ASD were reported missing, and 1 in 4 was missing long enough to cause concern. In addition, 65% of wandering incidents involved traffic injuries or drowning. Studies found that children who wander have severe autism symptoms. Depending on this factor, the motivation behind eloping behavior differs. Children with severe autism and intellectual disability tend to be happy and playful when wandering, while high functioning autistic children are more likely to be anxious and confused.

Why do children with an intellectual disability elope? The Occurrence and family impact of elopement in children with autism spectrum disorders study explains why this happens. Some of the reasons include:

  • They want to explore. Sometimes, children with ASD get fixated on an exciting thing and want to explore without being aware of the danger.
  • Go to a place they enjoy. Like we’ve mentioned before, children are attracted to bodies of water because it's calming. As a result, you might find your kid near a pond or a place they like.
  • Get out of a stressful situation. Children with ASD are sensitive to many factors, such as touch, lights, noises, or smells. In an overwhelming situation, your child might want to get away.

By using a specific diagnostic code, doctors can include wandering in the autism diagnosis. They hope that this diagnostic code will help parents of children with autism, doctors, and teachers understand wandering better and devise ways to prevent it.

What Should You Do

Parents, teachers, and caregivers should plan and prevent such situations if there is a tendency to wander in the child. Wandering can happen anywhere and anytime, and parents should pay close attention and not get distracted. Events such as family gatherings can be a profitable opportunity for the child. This break in the routine increases the risk of elopement because the child wants to escape a stressful situation.

Here are a few key tips for preventing wandering.

Know What Triggers the Behavior

You need to understand why your child tends to wander and what triggers this behavior. This way, you’ll be able to manage wandering better. Is your child sensitive to noise and light when you’re in the supermarket? Does your child not want to participate in a school activity because he feels pressured? Is your autistic child interested in water? Watch out for any giveaways that your child might want to wander, such as frequent glances at the door. Always be aware of your child’s location.

Secure Your House

Regardless of the age, shut and lock doors that lead outside. Use security gates and fences in your hard, install a home security alarm system on doors and windows, or put deadbolt locks. It might sound rather extreme, but it will prevent your child from running and alert you if he manages to get away.

Teach Healthy Behaviors

You can start by teaching your child how to self-calm when stressed. Tell your family and teachers how important it is to keep the child engaged and busy to reduce the tendency to wander. Use social stories to teach your child about road safety, stranger danger, and fire and water safety. Other safety skills include helping your child identify themselves or asking what he wants.

It's also a good idea to teach your child how to swim, so he'll know when it's ok to swim and how to float. Reinforcing water and swimming safety can make the difference between life and death. Fences can surround home pools to prevent the child from getting in without supervision. Also, have a checklist of nearby lakes to search if your child elopes.

Alert Authorities

Your child surely has many places he's likely to go, so ask for the community's help. Your neighbors can lower the risk of wandering if they know about the issue. Speak with the school's staff about your child's needs and about ways they can manage them. Your autistic child probably needs constant supervision, and the teachers should be extra careful. Also, talk to the police and introduce officers to your child. Give the police your child's information (photo, emergency contact information, etc.) and tell them about the places he tends to wander. Anything helps. First responders keep the community members safe, so it's important they are prepared to deal with the situation.

READ MORE: Prepare Your Autistic Kids to Interact with the Police

Consider a Tracking Device

More than 1 of 3 children with autism spectrum don't know how to communicate their address, name, or phone number. You could use an identification necklace or a bracelet with your contact information and a diagnosis for your child.

A GPS device is also helpful. The child can wear them on the wrist, ankle, or, if your child does not like it, on the shoelace. Some GPS devices allow you to activate an alarm and alert you if your child is in an unusual spot. Safety programs such as Project Lifesaver or SafetyNet Tracking are probably available through your local law enforcement agency.

Have a Plan

It's always a good idea to have an emergency plan, as well as setting expectations. Before going out, tell your child what you're planning, so he knows what to expect. He needs to follow specific rules and a schedule. As a safety precaution, take noise-canceling headphones to avoid any triggers.

Regarding the emergency plan, it should include many things that we’ve already discussed:

  • Your child’s name, description, and a photo
  • Your child’s favorite place, where he’ll most likely wander, even the dangerous ones
  • Details about how your child might react when approached by strangers
  • Your contact information

Share your plans with your loved ones, neighbors, the school, and local police. All the community should know how to supervise your child and not let him act. The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and other programs have sample plans you can download to get inspired.

Don’t Panic

Yes, of course, you will worry and be stressed when your child is not next to you. It can happen anywhere, at any moment when you're not paying attention. One second, you're holding your little one's hand, and the next, he's gone. It's a parent's worst scenario. But by taking safety precautions and having a plan will make this easier to handle. A good idea is also to check out these resources that the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests will help:

AWAARE.org—this site has resources to prevent and respond to dangerous wandering.

Autism Speaks’ Safety Project—contains safety tips for people with ASD and their families.

Autism Society—improves the quality of life for families and individuals with autism, treats them with dignity, and values their skills.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children—this association put together tools and guides for training and responding to missing children.