This blog post has been adapted from “Chapter 2: Childhood” of OAR’s resource “Life Journey Through Autism: A Guide to Safety”.
“Wandering” and “elopement” are terms used to describe when someone leaves a safe place and is unsupervised. Given the serious stress and consequences that wandering and elopement can cause for families touched by autism, and given the likelihood of first responder (police, firefighters, EMS, etc.) involvement, there has been considerable publicity and research devoted to this topic. Although wandering typically peaks around the age of 5, it continues to be a major issue throughout childhood and into adolescence for some people.
Approximately 48 percent of children diagnosed with autism have been reported to elope. Elopement increases the risk of death for individuals with autism at twice the rate of the general population.
Most children who wander do so either from their home, someone else’s home, stores, or school. The reasons for wandering vary for each child. Some children with autism are curious and like to explore. Others may wander to avoid something unpleasant, such as loud noises, crowds, discomfort, anxiety, or other sensory triggers. Other children may be goal-directed, trying to reach some particular thing or place that interests them. For example, a child fascinated with birds may wander in an attempt to follow a particularly colorful one.
When children wander, they put themselves at risk not only for getting lost, but also for victimization, drowning, and getting hit by a car. The search for wandering children also becomes challenging if the children have communication limitations.
The threat of wandering and elopement evokes legitimate fear among parents; it can impact their level of anxiety, sleep, and ability to enjoy everyday activities. Many families avoid going out to public places due to concerns that their child will wander off, preventing themselves from building and maintaining a strong social support system. However, there are a number of practical ways to address (and minimize the overall risk of) wandering behaviors, prevent them altogether, and give you peace of mind.
Planning and Prevention
- Understand why your child may be wandering.
Children have different reasons for wandering: to escape, out of curiosity, or directed at a goal. If the reasons are unclear right now, then you might consider keeping a “wandering log,” writing down all the details from any wandering incidents that occur. Questions to ask yourself include: What series of events preceded the elopement? Who was there? Were there any stimuli or triggers present? Where was my child trying to go? Once you understand the possible reason(s) why your child wanders, you then can begin to develop strategies to address the behavior. For example, if your child’s goal is to escape something unpleasant, then you can teach them an alternative, improved way to cope with the unpleasant experience (e.g., plugging their ears, telling a trusted adult, etc.).
For more information about creating a wandering log, see A Guide to Safety Appendix F.
- Practice swimming and water safety skills.
Swimming is an essential skill that can help prevent water-related injuries or death by drowning. Start swimming lessons as early as possible and continue them as needed, even when your child gets older. Many communities have programs specific to individuals with special needs, and some communities have adapted aquatics programs.
- Implement behavior modification plans.
Work with the professionals, therapists, and teachers in your network to support and create behavior modification plans related to wandering that apply to different environments. Having a plan can help reduce panic and provide rational steps to solve problems if and when they occur.
- Practice communicating contact information.
There are many ways your child can practice (with therapists, you, or other trusted caregivers) communicating his or her name and contact information. Have them memorize a parent’s primary phone number so that they can provide contact information to police. Among the first questions police ask are “Where do you live?” and “What is your phone number?”. Your child should know the answers. It also can help to have them practice giving contact information with other people (e.g., your friends, acquaintances) to test their accuracy.
For some nonverbal children, communicating information such as where they live or how to reach their parent is simply not realistic. If your child struggles to do so, an alternative might be for them to have an ID card that they can show to law enforcement officials when necessary. Make sure that your child practices these skills often, whether that involves showing or reciting contact information. There are many alternative ID options for nonverbal children, such as medical ID bracelets or necklaces, clothing labels, temporary tattoos, or shoe tags.
For alternative identification resources available online, check out Safety Tat.
- Explore tracking options.
There are many different methods that can be used to keep tabs on a child with autism; among them are GPS locators or other personal tracking devices. Do your homework and conduct a Web search for reviews of any GPS products listed. Some talk a big game and do not work. No tracking option is 100-percent effective. Some specific things to think about are:
- Will your child wear it? Like ID bracelets, a tracking device may be removed easily if your child finds it irritating.
- Different families have different tracking needs. Consider if a tracking device is removable, waterproof, connects directly to law enforcement, has a long battery life, or connects via cell service. Also consider the type of technology used in the tracking device, like GPS versus radio frequency devices.
Options for tracking are expanding, and more funding may be available to families to help with some of the associated costs. It never hurts to ask your local law enforcement agency if they are participating in any state or federal programs that help families who have children with special needs access these devices.
For more information on tracking devices, see Appendix O.
- Alarm and secure your home; inquire about alarms in your child’s school.
An alarm or home security system may be something to consider if your child routinely wanders away from your home. Different types are available depending upon your specific needs and budget. Consult with a professional about the most up-to-date options and information. You can find different types of locks for doors and windows to make sure your child does not have an easy escape route.
- Teach your child to stay with you when in public.
Teaching a child to discriminate between walking versus running, holding hands or walking within 6–12 inches of an adult, and compliance with the words “go, walk, stop, wait” are important for maintaining your child’s safety. Use positive reinforcement and visuals when teaching and practicing these skills. While this strategy will not help in all situations, it certainly can help when walking through a store, parking lot, etc.
- Get to know law enforcement.
Getting to know local law enforcement and public safety personnel in your area not only will help them become more aware of your child’s wandering behavior, but also can help your child feel more comfortable around these important individuals. Seek out non-emergency opportunities to introduce your child and family to police officers and firefighters. If your child is comfortable approaching and interacting with law enforcement personnel, it can greatly aid any search and rescue operations if the need ever arises in the future.
It also may be helpful to notify or register information about your child with law enforcement and first responders in advance of any emergency. Let them know that your child has special needs and that they may have challenges in interactions with emergency services. You also may want to collaborate with first responders in the local area to set up an “in-service” training module that addresses both the issues you face and what challenges law enforcement will face when responding to a missing child call involving a child with autism.
Many communities offer the option through their 911 call centers to have special needs information already on file in the case of an emergency. You can call your local 911 call center to see if you are able to add information about your child, their needs, and their wandering behaviors prior to any incident. This way, the information is already in the system should a wandering incident necessitate a search.
For more information on autism emergency contact forms, see Appendix G.
- Know what your child responds to (and doesn’t respond to).
Knowing specific information about your child is vitally important when there is an emergency—not just for you, but for others (like law enforcement personnel) who may be involved in a search. For example, loud sounds or calling over a megaphone may scare your child, but playing a favorite song on a radio may help your child feel comfortable enough to come out of a hiding spot. Give law enforcement officials this information, no matter how trivial it may seem.
- Practice with your child what to do if they get lost.
Develop easy-to-remember (for you and your child) strategies for what your child can do if they become lost. It can be as simple as “stay where you are,” or something more specific to your child or family. Regardless of the strategy, it is important to practice it over and over again. Also, if your child has a smartphone, you can use free apps like “Find My Friends” to locate your child if they have their cell phone with them.
- Have your emergency plan located in key places.
Your Family Wandering Emergency Plan (see Appendix H) should include emergency contact information and action steps. Make sure to tell first responders how they should interact with your child (e.g., not to use loud speakers). Print out a map of the area complete with your 911 emergency call script. Annotate and highlight any dangerous areas (e.g., bodies of water), and points of possible interest for your child. Have multiple copies to help facilitate immediate use by first responders. Store the map and emergency plan where it can be readily located, have copies in several areas (e.g., house, car, work, school, etc.), and share them with key persons in your safety network. Collaborate with your child’s school to ensure that they also have a crisis plan (e.g., using walkie-talkies, calling 911 right away, etc.) in place and know what to do when an emergency arises.
For more information on family wandering emergency plans, see Appendix H.
- Establish a safety network.
Before you begin searching for your wandering child, be sure to call 911 immediately. Do not try to search for them on your own. The more people you have who can look out for your child, the better off they will be. Once you have informed the authorities, you can look to your safety network for additional help. Make your neighbors aware of your child’s needs, interests, potential challenges, and what they can do to help. You may choose to educate a neighbor about your child’s wandering behaviors and share contact information before an emergency occurs. Also, help your child’s school know about the search strategies you use when they wander, and work together with teachers and specialists to develop targeted plans that address wandering behaviors. Other individuals who work with your child, such as a therapist, should also be able to help them practice safety skills.
For more information on talking to a neighbor about wandering, see Appendix I.
As your child gets older and nears adolescence, safety takes center stage. The skills that your child has built during childhood will lay a solid foundation for the new priorities that arise during adolescence: social relationships with peers and, depending on your child, even dating. For more tools, tips, and information on how to identify and address safety threats for your loved ones with autism at all ages, check out the full guide, Life Journey Through Autism: A Guide to Safety.