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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.
For more on wandering, see: 12 Ways to Prevent, and Respond to, ASD Wandering
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.
Krupa Patel recently received her B.S. in Neuroscience from the University of Southern California and is currently a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the Mind, Brain and Education program. She has previously taught STEM in elementary classrooms and is an advocate for inclusive education. She has also worked at a nonprofit aimed at supporting individuals with mental illnesses in rural areas and de-stigmatizing mental illness. Her specific interests lie in the intersection between neuroscience and developmental disabilities and hopes to pursue a career in Pediatric Psychiatry or Neurology.