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This week’s blog discusses an important issue for many parents in the autism community: wandering and elopement. Writer Shanell Mouland discusses her young daughter with autism, Kate, and her tendency to “run”, along with how wandering behaviors may differ from child to child.

Shanell Mouland runs a Facebook page and a blog called GoTeamKate, where this post originally appeared.

She never looks back. Why doesn’t she look back?

Kate is what we call, in the autism community: a runner. She sometimes takes off at full speed toward an item of interest, or simply freedom, and sometimes she quietly slips away unnoticed. Both forms of elopement are extremely dangerous because she never looks back. She is not afraid of what might be around the corner. She has a pathological trust of everyone and everything and it scares the heck out of us.

This is the main reason we have an autism service dog.

Not every child who slips out of sight is at risk. Please be careful not to throw these terms around without understanding the severity of their meaning for some people. I’ve been teaching and parenting long enough to know the difference between a Wanderer/Runner and what I’ll call an Explorer. Children with autism very often exhibit traits of wandering, running or eloping from safety. Children with autism are often drawn to water during elopement and there are a staggering number of deaths due to drowning on record. In fact, drowning is a leading cause of death among children and adults with autism. This issue has reached the level of crisis as not a week goes by that we don’t hear of another child losing their life due to wandering.

Please understand that wandering is a very serious and dangerous behavior often found in people with autism and Alzheimers

As an educator, I have had a number of parents over the years caution me that their child is a runner and needs further support during the school day. I have only found this to be true a handful of times.

Let me distinguish the difference, as I see it, for you here:

You Might Have an Explorer If:

Your child finds more interesting things to do while you shop like pop in and out of aisles ensuring you lose sight long enough to feel your heart in your chest for a moment.

Your child can be found exploring the flowers at the edge of the soccer field while the rest of the children are engaged in the game.

You often find yourself threatening to leave without your child during an outing, only to have them come running as you pretend to walk out the door.

You often find yourself saying things like: “That little rascal never slows down” and “Every time I turn around he’s into something else.”

And most importantly; when an Explorer takes off they will look back to see if they are being chased.

You Might Have a Wanderer/Runner if:

Your child does not respond to his/her name being called.

Your child exhibits no fear in the face of danger.

Your child exhibits no fear in the face of strangers.

Your child can easily slip away unnoticed even with direct supervision.

Your child never looks back.

If you have a Wanderer or a Runner, there is information out there that you can share with all those people that will have your child in their care. It is paramount that they understand how serious this issue is for our community.

Note: This issue and others like it are ones that OAR addresses in its guidebook, Life Journey Through Autism: A Guide to Safety, available for download now. To request a hard copy, please fill out this order form.