According to a 2012 research article* in Pediatrics magazine, nearly half of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a tendency to engage in wandering behavior. The National Autism Association defines wandering as “the tendency for an individual to try to leave the safety of a responsible person’s care or a safe area, which can result in potential harm or injury. This might include running off from adults at school or in the community, leaving the classroom without permission, or leaving the house when the family is not looking.” It also found that half of all parents had received no help or guidance on how to deal with the problem.
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. Wandering is, of course, stressful for caregivers and dangerous to individuals with ASD, but the following are some tactics and strategies to help prevent wandering behavior.
Consult a professional locksmith, security company or home improvement professional on steps to promote safety and wandering prevention in your home. They can advise on and install appropriate locking systems, a home security alarm that alerts you any time a door or window opens, battery-operated alarms on doors, or place hook and eye locks on doors above your child’s reach, fence your yard, and stick printable STOP signs to doors, windows and other exits, etc.
Check with your local law enforcement agency for recommendations on wearable tracking devices. Various GPS tracking systems are also available. If your child has a cell phone, there are several apps such as “Find my iPhone” that allow you to track their whereabouts. There are also a number of waterproof kid-friendly tracking devices, which is important as wandering and drowning often occur together.
Medical ID bracelets will include your child’s name, telephone number and other important information. They may also indicate that your child has autism and is non-verbal if applicable. If your child will not wear a bracelet or necklace, consider a temporary tattoo with your contact information.
If verbal, teach your child the word “help” to use in an unfamiliar setting.
Inquire at your local community center if swimming lessons for children with special needs are available. At least one lesson should be with clothes on. Remember, teaching your child how to swim does not mean your child is safe in water. If you own a pool, fence it and if neighbors have pools let them know of these safety precautions and your child’s tendency to wander. Remove all toys or items of interest from the pool when not in use.
It is recommended that caregivers visit with neighbors to introduce their child and/or provide a recent photograph. Knowing your neighbors can help reduce the risks associated with wandering.
Providing first responders with key information before an incident occurs may improve response. Informational handouts should include all pertinent updated information and be carried with caregivers at all times. Give the handout to family, neighbors, friends and co-workers, as well as first responders.
Visit http://awaare.nationalautismassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/AUTISM-ELOPEMENT-ALERT-FORM.pdf for an “AUTISM ELOPEMENT ALERT FORM PERSON-SPECIFIC INFORMATION FOR FIRST RESPONDERS” form to fill out with current information.
In spite of these well-intentioned safety guards, the truth is that children and adults with autism can and do manage to leave the safety of their homes. In the event this happens to you, here are some first steps to take:
1. Call the local authorities and give them all pertinent information: current pictures, clothing worn when last seen and favorite nearby locations, including favorite types of hiding spots: underneath cars, behind bushes, as well favorite places to visit such as McDonalds, local deli, neighborhood playground, etc.
2. Have a friend or family member go door-to-door in the neighborhood, handing out pictures and contact information.
3. Post pictures on social media, especially local community groups.
4. Make sure someone stays at home in case the child returns or is brought home.
Autism Speaks lists a variety safety tools, products and forms on their website to help you.
Sources: (1) From AWAARE: Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Coalition; (2) *“Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders” by Connie Anderson, J. Kiely Law, Amy Daniels, Catherine Rice, David S. Mandell, Louis Hagopian, Paul A. Law; (3) autismspeaks.org