Wandering or “elopement,” a common behavioral occurrence among children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to the tendency to leave a safe, supervised space or caregiver and subsequently expose oneself to potential danger. Wandering is both tragic and terrifying for parents, given that drowning and wandering-related behaviors are the top causes of death in the ASD community (Rice et al., 2016). Although most of the reports of wandering have been anecdotal, the first major study on wandering by the American Academy of Pediatrics provides hard data on wandering and elopement among individuals with ASD.
This major report brings both awareness to the prevalence of wandering as well as key insights into specific wandering patterns. Based on the reports of a sample of approximately 600 parents of children with ASD, 49% reported that their child had attempted to wander at least once after they were 4 years old. Typically, the wandering behavior peaks at 5 years and the extent of wandering is related to the severity of ASD. Additionally, 26% of the overall sample, thus half of those who engaged in wandering, reported that those who wandered went missing long enough to cause concern. The most common location that children would wander from included their own home or other’s homes, stores, and classrooms (Anderson et al., 2012).
Clearly, wandering and elopement are quite common behaviors, but what drives children with ASD to wander? Most often, much of the wandering behavior appears goal-directed, where half of the parents reported that their children intended to specifically go somewhere or engage in an activity of interest. Children with autistic disorder or other ASD were more likely to elope because they want to reach a specific place they truly enjoyed or liked to explore, while children with Asperger disorder were reported to elope due to their desire to escape a stressful situation (Anderson et al., 2012). According to the Interactive Autism Network, over half of the children who wandered were “playful, happy or focused” while approximately 20% of the children were reported as “anxious or sad” (Law & Anderson, 2011).
Due to the severity and prevalence of wandering, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) approved wandering as a new medical diagnosis code in 2011. This official diagnosis may aid in insurance coverages for safety equipment, such as tracking devices, locks and alarms, as well as accommodations for a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) in school settings. This medical code may also allow for better guidance from pediatricians to engage in dialogue with parents and provide measures to prevent wandering. Wandering is both stressful for caregivers and dangerous to children with ASD, but there are several tactics and strategies to eliminate wandering behavior.
Here are 6 strategies to prevent and and respond to ASD wandering:
- Understand the goals: What is the goal of your child? Perhaps he or she is trying to reach a specific place or simply enjoys exploring. Understanding these wandering patterns could allow for strategies to prevent wandering while still allowing your child to engage in their desired activities in a safe space. Some of the typical motivators include “enjoys exploring,” “heads for favorite place,” and “escapes demands/anxiety” (Law & Anderson, 2011).
- Understand the triggers: What may be triggering them to leave? Addressing the triggers that may cause your child to wander can allow for methods to either remove the triggers or to work on coping strategies to handle the triggers.
- Security and tracking: If your child has a phone, there are several apps such as “Find my iPhone” that allow you to track them at any given them. There are also a number of kid-friendly tracking devices that are water-proof, which is important as wandering and drowning often occur together. Additionally, consider installing a home alarm system that alerts you any time the door or window opens.
- Teaching safety: Use visuals, stories or the type of language your child likes to inform them about the dangers of wandering. You could, for instance, print a Stop Sign or get red tape, and put it by your doors and windows. Additionally, teach your child different methods and strategies they should use in case they get lost. Approximately 35% of children who wander are rarely able to communicate their name, home address or phone number (Law & Anderson, 2011). Thus, be sure to either have your child carry proper identification or ensure they can communicate important information in order to get them home safely.
- School setting: If there is a history of wandering, it is important that the IEP addresses the behavior to better prepare for and respond to it. You may also engage in dialogue with the teachers, administrators and school leader to understand what sorts of security measures are already in place and what could be added in order to ensure the safety of your child during the school day.
- Enroll in swimming classes: As the leading cause of death among the ASD is drowning, enrolling in swimming classes is vital, especially those that practice swimming with clothes and shoes on. YMCA and other organizations offer swimming classes for children with ASD. Additionally, if you own a pool, be sure to secure it with proper fencing and gates.
Anderson, C., Law, J. K., Daniels, A., Rice, C., Mandell, D. S., Hagopian, L., & Law, P. A. (2012). Occurrence and family impact of elopement in children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 130(5), 870-877.
Law, P., & Anderson, C. (2011). IAN research report: elopement and wandering. Baltimore, MD: Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Rice, C. E., Zablotsky, B., Avila, R. M., Colpe, L. J., Schieve, L. A., Pringle, B., & Blumberg, S. J. (2016). Reported Wandering Behavior among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or Intellectual Disability. The Journal of pediatrics, 174, 232-239.