Autism Awareness & Acceptance Month:
The Risks of Wandering for Individuals with Autism
Every parent can imagine the fear they would experience if their child were to go missing. But what if your child can’t say their name, address or even respond if a searcher were to call their name? This is the fear that many parents of a child with autism live with.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can face many unique challenges as they grow, and wandering is one of the scariest behaviors these families experience. Wandering, sometimes called elopement, is a person who leaves a safe environment without adult supervision. This behavior is considered highly dangerous as the child can be exposed to numerous potential hazards, including traffic, bodies of water, strangers and other threats.
A research study by the National Autism Association (NAA) confirmed what many parents know well: Wandering by children with autism is common. The NAA found that nearly 50% of children with ASD engage in wandering behavior. This stressful behavior is not limited to children, as individuals of all ages with autism can have wandering tendencies.
Wandering and elopement raise safety concerns for this population, and the dangers of wandering are of genuine concern. Children with ASD are often drawn to bodies of water, possibly because of the calming effect it may bring. Due to this phenomenon, children with ASD may wander without adult supervision toward pools, ponds or lakes. Drowning remains a leading cause of death for children with autism. Autism Speaks, a support network, reports that drowning is responsible for 90% of deaths associated with wandering by children ages 14 and younger.
Additional safety concerns include wandering into dangerous construction sites with heavy machinery and wandering into traffic where the individual cannot follow traffic signals or communicate their intentions to drivers, which may lead to accidents and serious injury. When police attempt to remove the individual from the roadway, anxiety and fear may cause them to run, pushing them further into busy traffic.
Communication difficulties, paired with a tendency to wander, also present safety concerns for older individuals with ASD and their caregivers. Many individuals with ASD have difficulty communicating feelings, which may make it difficult for them to effectively communicate with a good Samaritan, first responder or police officer offering help. Even among those who can speak, when interacting with police, individuals with ASD may fail to comply with instructions due to agitation, anxiety or fear. Due to these challenges, they may be unable to communicate effectively. For example, individuals may be unable to answer direct questions or relay their names or other demographic information. They may be unable to inform the officer that they have a disability, which may increase the likelihood of misinterpretation of behaviors such as pacing or lack of eye contact.
So, what can parents and family members do to prevent wandering among individuals with ASD? The first step is to create a secure home. Ensuring the home has adequate locks on doors and alarms on windows, and a fence with a locked gate around the property can help prevent elopement. Numerous safety tips are available in the “Big Red Toolkit,” an online resource for families to help promote safety for individuals with ASD and other disabilities. Meeting your neighbors and informing them that someone in your home has a developmental disability creates a network of people who can help prevent wandering. The “Big Red Toolkit” also contains information on the various tracking technology devices available, which can aid law enforcement officials in promptly locating an individual who has wandered. Family members should keep up-to-date information handy, including a photo, which can assist search efforts.
To help raise awareness regarding wandering and strategies to interact with first responders, LSU Health Shreveport will partner with the Shreveport Police Department to offer a free, in-person opportunity for people with developmental disabilities and their loved ones to learn more about safety as well as practice interacting with police officers and traffic stops. This event is an excellent opportunity to role play real-life police interactions and learn how to interact and communicate in stressful situations safely. The idea of interacting with police officers can feel intimidating, especially if you or your loved ones have a disability. One of the best ways to manage that anxiety and prepare yourself for a successful realworld interaction is to practice. This event will follow an Autism Awareness Walk sponsored by Perfect Fit Autism Foundation. A demonstration involving a) safe police interaction and b) a safe traffic stop will be held in the parking lot off of Ockley at Betty Virginia Park at approximately 9:30 a.m. following the race.
Individuals with ASD are prone to wandering for numerous reasons. They may wander to seek something out, such as water, or become anxious and try to escape a stressful situation. While wandering with autism is common, often dangerous and puts stress on caregivers and families, developing a safety plan before it occurs is an ideal way to plan ahead, providing peace of mind for you and those you care for.
Michelle Yetman, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, associate professor Clinical Children’s Center at the School of Allied Health Professions LSU Health Shreveport.