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How to prevent wandering in children with autism?

How to prevent wandering in children with autism?

Wandering, also referred to as eloping in ABA therapy terms, is a common pattern of behavior in some children with autism. According to a 2012 study by John Hopkins, 49% of children with autism tend to wander away from safe areas. Another study from the National Autism Association found that as many as 92% of families indicated that their child with ASD was at risk for wandering.

Given these statistics, wandering in individuals with autism can be common, so discussing the risks and most importantly, the preventative strategies that can be implemented to avoid wandering, can reduce the associated risks to ensure the safety of all children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Causes of wandering in children with autism

Different forms of behavior can also be channels of communication. When a child wanders, they may be communicating a need or a desire. It may take some time to identify specifically what they are seeking by wandering. 

If your child is currently in ABA therapy, you can ask their BCBA to discuss a functional behavior assessment (FBA) to identify the purpose of the wandering and create an individualized behavior intervention plan (BIP) to help your child meet their needs without wandering away from a safe location.

Some possible causes of wandering include:

  • Seeking something of interest
  • Escaping aversive stimuli or an aversive situation 
  • Freely running may feel good to them

Preventative measures

There are many things caregivers, therapists, and other professionals can do to reduce the risks associated with wandering in children with autism. From proactively arranging the environment in a way that will reduce the likelihood of successful wandering to targeting communication skill improvement, and even planning for worst-case scenarios by equipping yourselves with a game plan if your child does wander. 

Let’s review several proactive strategies for wandering:

Environmental modifications 

  • Identify and secure any exits in the home - Ensure doors and windows throughout the home are locked and unable to be opened by your child. This may require the installation of additional locks that are placed higher, out of the child’s reach, and/or locks that the child is unable to unlock. A fenced and secured yard is also beneficial in allowing your child some freedom to play or run around. 
  • Install a home security system - If your child wanders from the home, a fast response from caregivers can make all the difference. A home security system can help ensure that you are immediately notified if doors or windows are opened, so you can quickly act.
  • Visual stop signs - Putting stop signs on points of exit around the home and yard can serve as a prompt for your child to pause before exiting. It may take some time to teach and reinforce both the concept of the stop sign and pair it with the visual prompt. However, this can be an effective strategy once the concept is taught with help and practice in partnership with your child’s care team.
  • Pay attention to triggers - There may be common setting events that may prompt your child’s wandering. It may occur more often if your child is overstimulated in a loud or bright environment. Or perhaps it occurs more frequently during the summer months when the neighbors have their pool set up. Whatever the case, it may help to pay attention to and document specific triggers, so additional strategies can be implemented to reduce the likelihood of wandering when the triggers or setting events are present. 

Skill development

  • Enroll your child in swim lessons - With accidental drowning being the cause of 71% of wandering-related deaths, learning to swim is an invaluable life skill that may save a child’s life. It’s important to note that children with autism may experience sensory sensitivities surrounding water, which can make this a challenge. A special needs swim class that first focuses on tolerance to the water may be most beneficial in teaching children with autism to swim. It is important to note that teaching your child to swim does not mean they are safe around water unattended. However, it is an important life skill, should they ever find themselves in a situation where they have wandered toward a body of water. Be sure to collaborate with your child’s care team as you incorporate swim lessons into your child’s routine.
  • Address delays in your child’s functional communication skills - As previously stated, behavior serves a purpose. A particular challenge faced by some children with autism can be communication deficits. Some children with autism may be unable to effectively communicate their wants and needs, so they may engage in behaviors such as wandering to access what they are seeking. Functional communication can be addressed through therapeutic measures such as speech therapy or ABA therapy.  With the help of your child’s care team, improving their communication can greatly reduce the chances of wandering, as they are provided with a way to communicate and get their needs met. 
  • Teach safety instructions - An ability to respond to safety commands such as “stop”, “stay by me”, and “come here” are necessary to keep your child safe in the community. Establish rules for the community, practice them at home, and follow through on them when you leave the house. 

Action plan

If your child does wander from your home or other safe space with you, you’ll want to have a plan of action. 

Here are a few proactive strategies that you can take to act quickly:

  • Consider tracking devices - GPS Tracking devices such as AngelSense can help you quickly locate your child if they wander off. Their location can even be shared with first responders or others to help in locating them. 
  • Communicate with trusted neighbors - If your child is at risk of wandering, having all eyes on deck can make a big difference. Inform neighbors nearby about your child’s risk of wandering, and ask that they immediately notify you if they see your child outside unattended. 
  • Provide your child with a wearable ID - Over one-third of children with autism who wander are unable to communicate their personal information if lost and approached by a community helper. Because of this, a bracelet with pertinent contact information can help to quickly identify them and bring them back to the safety of their home. Consider investing in a wearable ID for your child. 
  • Ensure schools and other locations have a safety plan in place - If your child attends school, camp, daycare, or any other settings, discuss the implementation of a safety plan with their staff as well. If your child has an IEP, request that strategies to prevent wandering are included in their plan. 

What to do if your child does wander

While proactive strategies are great at reducing the likelihood and risks associated with wandering, children can sometimes sneak through the cracks. While easier said than done, it is important to remain calm in order to think clearly and logically. Immediately implement the safety plans that were previously created. 

A reactive plan of action may include the following:

  • Search any common areas your child may be likely to wander to - Is there a particular spot in the neighborhood that they are drawn to? Think about whether they are likely to be drawn to pools and bodies of water, vehicles, etc. 
  • Call emergency personnel to assist in recovery efforts - Inform them of your child’s disabilities and any pertinent information regarding how they may respond to being approached. They should be made aware of your child’s behavioral tendencies that may be exhibited when located such as bolting away, engaging aggressively, etc. 
  • Have someone stay home while others are out searching - Having someone at your home while others are out searching will be beneficial if your child returns home on their own or with outside help. If you have a trusted neighbor who has already been filled in on your child’s wandering risks, you can try asking them to come to wait at your house. 
  • Upon arrival back home, try to remain calm - It is unlikely that your child wandered to create fear or cause harm. Ensure your child is unharmed, then allow yourself and your child time to process emotions. Once the initial rush of emotions has subsided, take some time to identify any preventative measures that were not upheld. Make additional environmental modifications to prevent reoccurrence. Most importantly, do not hesitate to reach out to professionals for support and further guidance, especially from your child’s care team. 

The risks of wandering

Many parents have experienced a time or two when they turn around to see that their young child is no longer there, and feeling the panic that quickly sets after. Thankfully, these occurrences typically result in quickly finding their child. 

For parents of children with autism, wandering can occur so quickly that they may not be able to as easily locate their child to bring them back to safety. There are many dangers associated with children wandering that cannot be overlooked. 

  • Accidental drowning - Wandering toward bodies of water is a common occurrence, resulting in a significant risk of drowning. When wandering results in a worst-case scenario, 71% of deaths occur due to accidental drowning. 
  • Traffic injuries - The second most significant risk of wandering is traffic injury such as getting hit by a car. 
  • Stranger interactions - When wandering, there is potential for encountering an unsafe stranger. Children with autism may not have the communication abilities to advocate for themselves and/or to seek help around unknown people. 
  • Hypothermia or heat stroke - Children who wander may not be dressed for the elements or otherwise prepared for being outside for significant periods of time. The longer a child is gone while wandering, the higher the risk of hypothermia or heat stroke is, depending on the weather at the time.
  • Falls or other injuries - A child may trip and fall, or otherwise experience physical injuries and be unable to communicate their injury to anyone.   

Additional resources

The National Autism Association provides a “Big Red Safety Toolkit” that includes checklists, visual stop signs, social stories, IEP resources, and more. It is strongly recommended that all parents of children who are at risk for wandering access this toolkit which provides additional valuable information.

Wrapping up

A thorough plan of action with both proactive and reactive strategies can help to keep your child safe and sound. It is best to regularly review your proactive and reactive plans of action as your child grows. As they get older, new ways to exit the home may be identified and additional strategies will be required. 

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