What do we know about autism and wandering off or running away from caregivers, parents, etc.?
Many parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) report that their children often place themselves in potential danger by wandering off, “eloping” or running away.
Adults with autism are also at risk; as well as individuals with intellectual disabilities or Alzheimers.
Additionally, individuals who have not wandered off before may still be at risk.
What does the research say about children on the autism spectrum running away from their parents/caregivers?
According to a study “Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” which surveyed 1,367 families of children diagnosed with ASD (between ages 4 and 17), 49 percent of families reported that their child had attempted to wander off at least once after age four.
Furthermore, out of that 49 percent, 316 children went missing long enough to cause concern.
Most often, children eloped from home, their classroom or school, or from a store.
It’s important to note that nearly half of all parents in the study said their child’s elopement was focused on an intent to go somewhere or do something, versus being confused or lost.
People on the autism spectrum often take off to follow an interest or point of attraction.
Some people on the spectrum are attracted to water, which may be due to its sound, appearance, or calming feel.
According to the National Autism Association, drowning is among the leading causes of death of individuals on the spectrum.
Some individuals with ASD are very interested in vehicles and are attracted to open roads.
People on the autism spectrum can get overstimulated in crowds or noisy places, which can increase their chances of elopement.
7 Tips to Prevent Wandering for People on the Autism Spectrum
1. Make sure your house is secure.
You can ask a locksmith, security company, or contractor to make your home as escape-proof as possible.
Some examples of added safety features can include:
- dead-bolt locks that require a key on each side
- an alarm that goes off when the door opens
- placing locks above your child’s reach
- having a locked fence around your house
2. Use a GPS Tracking Device.
Consider a GPS tracker such as the one made by AngelSense.
A GPS tracker can locate your child in case they go missing/wander off. There are several other brands that you can find in a Google search.
AngelSense has a good reputation within the Special Needs community. Find out more about how GPS Trackers like AngelSense work in the video below.
3. Give your child/adult a Custom ID Bracelet.
You can include your child’s name, phone number, address, etc. on the bracelet.
You can also state if they are on the autism spectrum, are non-verbal, have allergies, or other relevant medical information.
For some children who do not like to wear jewelry, parents have used temporary tattoos to display their child’s identifying information.
Check out Medical Alert ID Bracelets and SafetyTat Child ID Tattoos!
4. Get Your child swimming lessons or teach him/her to swim.
Many YMCA locations offer swimming lessons for children with special needs. Ask the instructor to make sure your child can swim with clothes on because they will likely be dressed if they wander off.
It is also important to remember that even if you teach your child to swim, they still may not be safe in the water.
Fence off pools/hot tubs/ponds on your property and consider asking neighbors to do the same and letting them know that your child may wander.
5. Introduce yourself and your child to your close neighbors.
If your neighbors know you and your child, they are more likely to stop your child if they see them walking alone. You may wish to provide a picture to keep the image of your child fresh in their minds.
6. Inform first responders in your area that your child may run off.
Tell the local police officers, firefighters, and EMT’s about your child. If possible, introduce them to your child.
Additionally, give them a paper that includes your child’s name and your contact information.
Include a statement about your child on the handout (e.g., has autism, is nonverbal, has a tendency to wander).
This will keep first responders on alert and they will be more likely to react if they see a child walking alone.
7. Teach your child about safety and why it is dangerous to run away from the group.
To the best of your and their ability, teach your child to stay with a familiar adult at all times and to notify someone if they need to go somewhere.
Also,, teach them what to do to stay safe if they find themselves alone.
Obviously, communication skills and the ability to understand about safety awareness play a large role in whether your child can learn to protect him/herself; however, we should still make every attempt to teach them these skills.
Children who have trouble understanding language may benefit from a social story to teach them about safety.
A social story is a practical description of what can occur or how to do something, in a storybook format, often with pictures.
Here is a link to five safety social stories made for children on the autism spectrum: https://www.twigtale.com/autismspeaks.
Additional Information About Wandering Off and Eloping
If your child is in school, inform their school about the potential for wandering or running away.
Share all of these facts and tips with your child’s school.
Have a discussion with the school team about how to prevent your child from wandering. Create a safety plan in writing with your child’s school team and make sure this plan is included in your child’s individualized education plan (IEP).
In general, make a point to increase awareness about autism and wandering. If people know about it, they are more likely to react to a potential wandering situation.
Big Red Safety Tool Kit: A Digital Guide for Caregivers
This tool kit from the National Autism Association is designed to provide guidance and support to families with children on the autism spectrum at-risk of wandering off or running away.
The kit contains the following resources:
- Caregiver Checklist
- Family Wandering Emergency Plan (FWEP)
- First-responder profile form.
- Swimming Lessons Tool
- Root-cause Scenario & Strategies Tool
- Stop Sign Prompts
- Sample Social Stories
- Caregiver Log
- Sample IEP Letter
- How to Get Tracking Technology In Your Town
- General Awareness Letter
- Five Affordable Safety Tools
- Caregiver Resources One-sheet resource
Big Red Safety Tool Kit: A Digital resource for First Responders
This kit, also from the National Autism Association, is designed to help first responders have a better understanding of autism and how to respond in an emergency situation involving an individual with autism.
The kit contains the following resources:
- Autism Overview/Autism Behaviors
- Autism and Wandering Information
- First Responder Checklist
- First Responder Tips
- First Responder Notification Form
- Guidelines for Missing Persons with Special Needs (NCMEC)
Thank you for visiting educationandbehavior.com, a free resource for parents, caregivers, educators, and counselors! We provide academic, behavioral, and social-emotional support for children.
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, caregivers, educators, counselors, and therapists to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them. For Rachel’s top behavioral strategies all in one place, check out her book, Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children, a Guide for Parents and Teachers. If you want Rachel to write for your business, offer behavioral or academic consultation, or speak at your facility about research-based strategies that support children, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.