Approximately half of all children with autism spectrum disorder attempt to elope from a safe environment. This is nearly four times the rate of their unaffected siblings. The term wandering or eloping as pertaining to people with autism means that someone with special needs has an urge to suddenly and impulsively leave an environment.
There are two ways people with autism will elope.
+ Walking Away: The person will just start to walk away unexpectedly.
+ Bolting/running away: For the caregiver this often feels like it came out of nowhere. The person will be doing an activity or standing still and will start to take off running.
Based on scientific studies and research, (links in the sources below) here is the information we know so far about the reasons someone with autism will wander off.
+ Disorientation or confusion.
+ To get away from something that makes them feel anxious such as commotion, uncomfortable stimuli, loud noises, or their fight or flight response has been activated, such as, when they’re exposed to a negative trigger.
This also includes escaping from internal anxiety and negative emotion. A good example is someone with autism who has a hard time communicating their emotions and needs to their caregiver may bolt from the house in order to get away from their feeling of frustration. People without autism have an understanding that the thoughts and emotions going on internally in their minds are separate from the physical world. Depending on the severity as well as the way that particular autistic person thinks, many people with autism perceive their internal and external worlds as connected. That you can escape your internal conflict such as frustration, grief, anger by escaping your environment. It’s very similar to going for a long drive or a walk to clear your head.
+ To go towards or seek something that they’re interested in such as trains, road signs, a swimming pool, returning home if they’re in a different place like school, and positive triggers.
When it comes to going towards something of interest, the person with special needs is generally giving little to no thought about:
The distance or how far the thing of interest is. If they know that one of the neighbors recently got a swimming pool but they don’t know which one they will take off in the direction they think it might be.
+ Duration of time and how long it will take to get there.
+ How they plan on getting there aside from walking on foot.
+ What will happen to the people in the environment that they wandered away from. It seems that when the person wanders from their environment to another area, and that time stands still in the place they left. Similar to pausing a movie and leaving the room.
+ Whether or not something they want or are avoiding is real or imagined. For example, an autistic person has a dream of a blue house and will take off to try and find it. The objective is concrete in their minds and is just as real to them as if it were in their physical world. This also holds true for negative triggers that a special needs individual will want to stay away from. This depends on the autistic person's functioning level, and their ability to distinguish what is in the real world verses what their imagination created.
Based on stories from families and caregivers of autistic people who have wandered, we can see that regardless of functioning level, an autistic person can execute a spur of the moment escape from a supervised area which suggests that they are much more observant of people and routines than their caregivers may believe them to be.
The most common location someone with autism will wander towards and unfortunately where the most fatalities happen is near or in water. We know that many people with autism are drawn towards water, however, the reasons for why this is are not entirely concrete and are still widely unknown. When it comes to autistic people and wandering, fatalities involving water account for 71% followed by 18% from being struck by a vehicle in the United States between 2011-2016.
This information can understandably feel overwhelming for families and caregivers of autistic children, youth and adults, as well as first responders. Thankfully, there are many preventative strategies to help reduce the chances of someone with autism from wandering as well as reduce the impact that wandering has on the autistic individual and their caregivers.+ More than ⅓ of children with autism who wander are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number. This means that even if an autistic person who wanders is found, they may not be able to communicate their needs to a stranger. It’s important for families and care providers to do their best to teach them how to communicate their name, address and phone number. If they know their parents names or the name of their care facility that’s also very helpful. In the news clip below, you’ll see a mother coaching her 9-year old son with autism on the answers to these questions and the experience she had getting him to answer these questions to police officers.
+ Stop/Go Game: This is a fun game that can help instill what the word stop actually means to someone with special needs. If they have a tendency to ignore a care provider when they’re being told to stop this will help create the habit of actually stopping the movement of their body, even if it’s just long enough for you to catch up to them.
+ Signs on the doors: Put stop signs on doors and exits in the house and school that they can’t leave without an adult. This is a visual version of the Stop/Go game. We have stop signs that can be printed for free on our website as well as ones that your autistic individual and you can colour together and post on the exits.
+ Tracking device. Project Lifesaver is a great option for a variety of reasons but there are many other options on the market to choose from. You’ll need to do some digging online to see which one best suits you and your autistic persons needs.
+ Wearable Identification. Alert Me Band is an easy to see identification bracelet that can be customized with your contact information in case your special needs individual wanders. It’s made of a smooth material similar to a dog leash for comfort since many people with special needs are extra sensitive to the materials in clothing and can be childproof (and adult proof) to prevent it from being removed.
+ Safety harness. A safety harness allows you to keep your special needs child or adult attached to you or a service dog when you’re out in public. Yes, you will see some people giving you dirty looks but the piece of mind in knowing your special needs individual is safe far outweighs it all. Children’s Harnesses by Elaine Inc makes harnesses for all ages and ships worldwide.
+ Consider investing in a security system. Vivint Smart Home has a program called Vivint Gives Back which allows families that have children with an intellectual disability to purchase a security system on a sliding scale based on their income level.
+ Register your special needs person in a Vulnerable Persons Registry if there’s one in your area. Vulnerable Person's Registries provide detailed information about your special needs child or adults medical needs to police and first responders in the event of an emergency. This is also useful if your autistic individual wanders since police will already have the information they need to begin their search. If there isn't a VPR in your area contact your local police department to see if they can put your autistic persons information on file in case of an emergency.
+ At least once a month take a picture of your special needs individual and have it ready on your phone to show police and members of the community if your child wanders and needs to be found.
+ Meet the neighbors. Go door to door in your neighborhood and introduce yourself and explain that your child has autism and is known to wander. Give them a picture of your child along with your contact information in case they see him/her without supervision. Ask your neighbors if they have an outdoor swimming pool, hot tub or outdoor body of water such as a creek running through their yard since the majority of autistic people who wander are found near water.
The excerpt is from Autism Speaks about wandering prevention tips from other parents (link in the sources below) describes a perfect example of how to explain your special needs child’s disability to your neighbors:
Lucille: "When we moved to a new neighborhood the first thing we did was go door to door with a flyer with a picture of our guy and our number on it. The message we put out was "if you see this boy unaccompanied please contact us as soon as possible". The response from our new neighbors was good, most were interested in knowing more about autism and happy to help if they could. We were very lucky to have such wonderful neighbors.”
+ Have their favorite music ready on a USB stick to hand to first responders in the event of an emergency. This allows first responders to use the music as a positive trigger to draw them out of an area such as the woods. Many people with autism will not respond when called and will hide from loud noises, making it difficult for first responders to find them. The special needs individual may not even be aware that they’re missing and actually hide from people trying to find them thinking that it’s a game like hide and seek. Having music they like, the voice of their favorite cartoon characters, the soundtrack to their favorite movies (Shrek, Disney, and other animated films tend to have great soundtracks), and other audio can help draw the special needs person out of hiding and towards the sound.
+ Be aware of and have a map of all the bodies of water in vicinity of your home, your special needs persons school, care facility and other recreational places they frequent on a regular basis such as therapy and summer camp. This is vitally important since many people with autism have a universal draw to water and are likely to be found near water.
- We strongly recommend getting your autistic person in swimming lessons. While this doesn’t guarantee they will be able to swim strongly enough or remember their training if they head to water, it can lessen the chances of drowning. The final swimming lesson should be done with their clothes on.
+ “Tag your it” at large gatherings such as family events and day to day life. Speak to your family about your child being known to wander and take turns having a designated family member keep an eye on them at all times.
+ Physical activity. While there is no concrete evidence as of yet between increased physical activity and lack of wandering it is still something to consider. If your autistic individual has a tendency to run away when they feel frustrated, setting time for them to have lots of physical activity will allow them to think clearer and get any pent up frustration out of their system.
All of the information listed can be customized to suit your autistic persons needs. We understand that this information can feel very overwhelming on top of the anxiety you already have around having your special needs person wander off. At SNEP we strongly emphasis prevention to reduce the likelihood of of an emergency from even taking place. Start small and implement that strategies that work best for everyone and expand from there. It takes time and effort but the piece of mind that you have knowing your autistic person is safe is precious beyond measure.
Author: Giada Crosbie
Find out more about Giada and the SNEP team here.
- National Autism Association: Morality and Risk in ASD Wandering/Elopement 2011-2016
- National Autism Association: 12 Ways to Prevent, and Respond to, ASD Wandering
- Autism Speaks - Wandering Prevention Tips from our Community
- Project Lifesaver
- Alert Me Bands
- Children's Harnesses by Elaine Inc
- Vivint Gives Back