Introduction: Wandering Concerns
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. This behavior is a significant concern among caregivers.
Wandering in ASD
Children with ASD are particularly vulnerable to wandering, and even those who have not wandered before may suddenly engage in this behavior, putting themselves in danger.
Wandering in Adults and Other Conditions
Wandering risks extend beyond childhood, affecting adults with ASD as well. Additionally, individuals with intellectual disabilities and Alzheimer’s disease can also be prone to wandering, presenting unique safety challenges.
Research Insights and Prevalence
Research provides valuable insights into the behavior of children on the autism spectrum who run away from their parents or caregivers. The study titled “Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” sheds light on this critical issue, revealing that 49 percent of families reported that their child had attempted to wander off at least once after reaching the age of four, with 316 children going missing long enough to cause concern.
Locations and Motivations Behind Wandering
Understanding the specific locations where children most often elope, such as home, school, or stores, is crucial. Furthermore, recognizing 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, highlights the importance of comprehending their motivations for wandering.
Fascination with Water Among Individuals on the Spectrum
Water-Related Drowning: A Serious Concern
Disturbingly, drowning ranks as one of the primary causes of mortality among individuals on the autism spectrum. This underscores the importance of water safety and awareness within this community.
Passion for Vehicles and the Open Road
In addition to water, some people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) show a strong interest in vehicles and find themselves drawn to expansive open roads.
Elopement Risks for Individuals on the Autism Spectrum in Crowded and Noisy Environments
People on the autism spectrum often experience overstimulation when surrounded by crowds or in noisy places. This heightened sensory experience can significantly elevate their risk of elopement.
11 Essential Tips to Prevent Wandering Among Individuals on the Autism Spectrum
1. Secure Your Home Thoroughly:
Ensure your home is escape-proof by consulting professionals such as locksmiths, security companies, or contractors. Implement safety features like:
- Dead-bolt locks requiring a key on both sides.
- Alarms that activate when doors are opened.
- Placing locks beyond your child’s reach.
- Installing a locked fence around your property.
These measures are crucial in creating a safe environment for individuals with autism to prevent wandering.
2. Utilize an AngelSense GPS-Tracking Device:
To enhance the safety of your loved one on the autism spectrum, consider investing in a GPS-tracking device like the one offered by AngelSense. GPS trackers can be invaluable for locating a missing or wandering individual. AngelSense is well-regarded in the Special Needs community, but there are other reputable brands to explore through a Google search.
To learn more about the functionality and benefits of GPS trackers like AngelSense, you can watch informative videos online. You can find the AngelSense GPS tracking device on Amazon or by searching online for other retailers.
3. Provide a Custom ID Bracelet or Temporary Tattoo:
Equip your child or adult on the autism spectrum with a custom ID bracelet, which can be personalized with essential information like their name, phone number, address, and any pertinent medical details. Additionally, you can specify if they are on the autism spectrum, non-verbal, have allergies, or any other relevant medical information.
For individuals who dislike wearing jewelry, consider using temporary tattoos as an alternative method to display their identifying information, ensuring that critical details are readily available in case of an emergency.
Consider enrolling your child in swimming lessons or teaching them to swim yourself. Many YMCA locations offer specialized swimming lessons for children with special needs. Ensure that the instructor includes training on swimming with clothes on, as your child may be clothed if they wander off.
Remember that even if your child knows how to swim, they may still be at risk in the water. To further enhance water safety, fence off pools, hot tubs, and ponds on your property, and consider discussing the same precaution with your neighbors while informing them of your child’s tendency to wander.
5. Establish Neighbor Connections:
Introduce yourself and your child to your nearby neighbors. Building a rapport with your neighbors can be crucial, as they are more likely to intervene if they spot your child walking alone. Providing a photograph of your child can help neighbors recognize them easily and keep their image fresh in their minds, enhancing your child’s safety within the community.
6. Notify First Responders About Your Child’s Tendency to Wander:
Take the proactive step of informing local first responders, including police officers, firefighters, and EMTs, about your child’s propensity to wander.
Whenever possible, introduce these professionals to your child, providing a face and name to help them recognize and assist your child effectively in case of an emergency. This crucial information can ensure a more informed and responsive response from first responders in your community.
Supply first responders with a document containing your child’s name, your contact information, and a concise statement about your child’s condition, such as autism, nonverbal communication, and a propensity to wander. This handout will keep first responders alert and more likely to react if they encounter your child walking alone.
8. Teach Your Child About Safety:
Educate your child about safety and the potential dangers of wandering from a group or a trusted adult. Encourage them to stay with a familiar adult at all times and to communicate if they need to go somewhere. Additionally, teach them what to do to stay safe if they find themselves alone. While communication abilities and safety awareness may vary, make every effort to impart these critical skills to your child.
9. Use Social Stories for Learning:
For children who may have difficulty understanding language or safety concepts, consider using social stories. These are practical, illustrated descriptions of situations or actions, often presented in a storybook format. Social stories can help convey safety awareness and appropriate behavior. You can find safety social stories for children on the autism spectrum here.
10. Inform Schools and Create a Safety Plan:
If your child is in school, inform the school about the potential for wandering or eloping. Share all the facts and tips mentioned above with the school, including the document for first responders. Engage in discussions with the school team to develop a safety plan tailored to your child’s needs. Ensure this plan is included in your child’s individualized education plan (IEP).
11. Raise Awareness About Autism and Wandering:
In general, be an advocate for increased awareness about autism and wandering within your community. When people are informed about this issue, they are more likely to respond effectively to a potential wandering situation, ultimately enhancing the safety of individuals on the autism spectrum.
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 spectrum disorder.
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)
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Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”