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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Good to Know: How to Protect Autistic Wanderers

Children with autism present unique challenges to their parents and caregivers, like most children with special needs. Once such challenge is known as “elopement”. Autistic children tend to get overwhelmed in various situations and seek respite in more quiet places. The effects on those who care for them can be quite stressful, leading to anxiety and the fear of not being able to go out into the community.

There are various reasons why a child with Autism may wander off. Some children gravitate toward water. This could be lakes, ponds, streams and pools. This is often because they are aware that the attention is no longer on them or they are able to slip out of the house without an alarm signaling. When a child with autism is in water they feel a connection with their body. They are able to experience how their body works as a whole and as separate parts. This is something that being out of the water does not give them. It could also be that just being around water makes them feel good. They may enjoy looking, watching or starring into the water. One slip and they are in trouble! The problem comes when the child does not know how to swim. Safety precautions will need to be put into place to prevent a serious accident from occurring.

When a child likes the feeling of the breeze especially when it touches their face or body they may just keep walking in order to feel the awakening of their senses. When you notice that your child is doing this do not be surprised when your call to them is ignored. They will continue to follow the wind and the feeling. At that point the only thing you can do is to chase after them.

A recent study suggested that there are a variety of reasons that autistic individuals walk away. The reasons varied from just wanting to get away from overwhelming situations (crowds) to wanting to go to a favorite destination, and just to explore. The wandering and elopement survey found that approximately half of parents with children with autism report that their child elopes, with the behavior peaking at age four. The article goes on to say that nearly half say that their child went missing long enough to cause significant concern about safety.

In the first study to gauge how commonly kids with autism spectrum disorders wander, or “elope,” researchers found that half of 1,367 surveyed families with autistic children aged 4 to 17 said their child had wandered away at least once after age 4. Among those families, more than half said their child had disappeared long enough to cause concern.

Concerns about elopement are a constantly on the minds of both parents and caregivers. Stories about children with autism wandering off have emerged in the newspapers some with happy endings and others not so happy. Tragedies where children have died because they were interested in something new and different such as a creek are gaining the public’s attention.

Wandering is a “constant problem” according to Jan (not her real name) with her eleven year old son who is like most children “inquisitive” and “always on the go” like many autistic children who get bored if left with nothing to do. When one’s child does venture farther than the specified safe area, parents can become frightened and almost paralyzed in their thinking of taking their loved one out in public situations. Will he run off again? Will she be nearby when I call her? What if someone tries to take my son or daughter? Very legitimate fears, but they can be dealt with. For Jan, the use of visual cues placed throughout the house help remind her son that wandering is not an option. She says “I talk with him regularly about safety concerns when he wanders giving examples of what can happen, and my rules about wandering and telling others where he is going.”

There are autistic children who can’t be reasoned with because the ability to understand why one can or can’t do something just isn’t part of their logic. While there are those who can understand the dangers of wandering, there are many more who just can’t understand the concept. Girls and boys with autism don’t always understand that they can’t talk to strangers, can’t walk away and go someplace new without an escort. They, like anyone else, are curious and want to see what’s out there, examine the new and unfamiliar so they learn a little bit more.

Measures are being taken to study why children and adults with autism tend to walk away from their familiar surroundings. According to an article published by Eureka Alert! (, “a new diagnostic code for individuals with autism” is being established. The code, ICM-9-CM, will provide much needed information on why autistic individuals engage in wandering behavior. The article goes on to say that two major advocacy groups are collaborating together so that researchers can better understand this dangerous behavior: Autism Speaks and The Interagency Coordinating Committee. As Chief Science Officer for Autism Speaks, Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. points out, “We need to better understand the scale of the problem of wandering and develop ways of preventing it. At the same time, we need to respect the essential freedom for independence in daily life for people in the autism community.” True, hindering one’s choices in their daily life can be disabling and potentially harmful to the development of that particular person. Being a part of the community is essential to the learning process for someone who is normally not so interactive. Learning proper behavior, to identify street signs, to order something from a menu, etc… And to just be comfortable among the crowds that they will encounter.

Parents and caregivers can’t let their guards down when it comes to protecting their loved one from leaving the premises. Changing the locks on the doors, reasoning, and even visual cues can be helpful in minimizing the risk that wandering will occur. What else can parents and caregivers do?

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GPS, global positioning system, is an electronic system using a network of satellites to indicate on a computerized receiver, is one way that parents can keep track of their child’s whereabouts. A website called sells GPS devices that can be worn, with software that can be downloaded onto one’s computer as well as Smartphone (USE CODE: CQI50 to receive 50% OFF the device). This device gives parents control over how far their loved one can go before an alert is sent via email or text message. Amber Alert GPS partners with safety officials in the communities in order to aid the search of a missing child. And by working with local law enforcement officials on understanding the characteristics of autism, a better treatment of our children and young adults can be in place when found.

The idea behind GPS technology is to help the parents feel safer when out in public or even at home, knowing they have the ability to control where their son or daughter goes. Companies such as Amber Alert GPS can also help in locating a runaway teen or wandering adult. They also work with various organizations, such as Child Quest International, to assist in the safe recovery of those with autism and other special needs such as Alzheimer’s. For the younger children, say toddler and preschool, another option is the MyChildID produced by The software holds vital information about one’s child, including medical, emergency contacts, and a description of the child themselves. The information can then be stored on a USB device, and can be updated as needed so that the information is current for anyone who happens to see the little one far from home. Both devices give a measure of control to the parent.

Low tech steps parents can take to keep their children safe are to wear identical colored shirts while on  an outing so that everyone in the group can stand out. The use of line drawings to help illustrate why leaving mom and dad or other caregiver can help reinforce the idea that staying with loved ones is better than getting lost. Still another idea is to make them aware, if they can understand, the symbol for “Safe Place” should they get lost, and know that they can stay put until someone they know arrives to take them safely home. Law enforcement officials and other safety officials in the community need to be educated on what autism is and how to respond someone who is autistic so that they can take proper care of them while contacting loved ones to pick them up. Even business owners need to be aware know that just because our children are different does not make them strange, or bizarre, they just happen to be extra special and maybe a bit extra curious about the world around them. Exploring is part of learning and that’s just want they should do … only with a protective shadow nearby.

Written by Leslie Cawley & Anthony Gonzalez
Edited by Anthony Gonzalez for Child Quest International


  1. thank you for this wonderful article! I am struggling to know what to do with my 6 year old autistic son who loves to wander off.

    1. Thank you for reading, Lisabeath! We are so happy you found our blog helpful for you and your son. Feel free to leave suggestions for any future topics you would like to see covered in relation to keeping kids safe from going missing or being abused. -Anthony