WANDERING AND ELOPEMENT
Up to half of all children and adolescents with autism will wander, many of them at least once a week. Ten to twenty percent of individuals with autism go missing long enough to warrant concern. The majority of children who wander are never, or rarely able, to give an adult their name, address, or phone number.
While some kids might simply get away from a parent’s proximity at a grocery store or may wander from a classroom, they may go further, including sneaking outside at night or when the mood strikes them. Children with ASD wander because they:
- Enjoy walking, running or exploring
- Want to go to a place they like, such as a park or a pond
- Seek to escape or avoid places of stress, like a classroom, doctor’s office, or busy shopping center
- Want to see something interesting, like running toward a traffic light or a group of kids playing
Wandering – like any other behavior – is communication. Wandering from school spikes in fall and winter; wandering to pursue an interest spikes in spring and summer, and stressful situations like holidays, vacations or outdoor gatherings, transitions, moving to a new house, or being in an unfamiliar place may cause your child to wander.
Wandering behavior is particularly worrisome in Southern Maryland because our counties are surrounded by water. In addition, there are hundreds of creeks, runs, and natural or stormwater ponds. In an emergency situation, the thought of having to search multiple bodies of water can be terrifying for a family whose child or teen has wandered, especially if their child has limited verbal abilities or is selective in responding when called by name. Drowning accidents account for almost all deaths related to wandering, and almost half of all autism-related wandering by children 9 and younger have resulted in death.
A parent who has a child that wanders has to be vigilant that their child not be tempted to go toward water at times the parent cannot keep track; it is not uncommon for parents to put key-lock deadbolts on doors or bars on windows, for example, to help prevent their child from wandering at night or at times the parent cannot keep track (like when mom is in the shower). There are other solutions, however, that may be more useful.
AWAARE AND THE BIG RED SAFETY BOX
The best website that deals with wandering behavior is one sponsored by the National Autism Association (NAA). The AWAARE Collaboration seeks to address issues related to wandering, including working with policy makers, law enforcement and first responders, schools, medical professionals, the media, and families. Their website is http://awaare.nationalautismassociation.org/
Families should consider completing a Family Wandering Emergency Plan and keep copies of the plan in easily accessible places, such as by the house telephone, in your “babysitting binder” or “family binder” of important household information. Copies could be given to neighbors or relatives who are willing to be contacted by first responders in the event of an emergency. Update this plan as your child grows up. A link to a PDF copy of the Plan is at http://awaare.nationalautismassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/FWEP.pdf
Families should consider obtaining a Big Red Safety Box from NAA, which includes a caregiver booklet, a Family Wandering Emergency Plan, profile forms similar to the three county registry forms, a sample IEP letter and other resources, 2 wireless door/window alarms, a MedicAlert device and shoe ID tag, signs and window clings, a child ID and other resources. See the AWAARE website above for more information on how to obtain one. Their Be REDy Booklet for Caregivers also has useful information, and a copy can be downloaded for free at http://nationalautismassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/BeREDyCaregiver2015.pdf
Be sure to check out the FAQ page at the AWAARE website as well for answers to dozens of questions regarding typical situations, working with family and schools, technology, and more. The link is http://awaare.nationalautismassociation.org/faqs/
Families should consider voluntarily registering their child or loved one with their local Sheriff, Police, and Emergency Communications Departments. For information on how to do that in Southern Maryland, as well information on Project Lifesaver (which all three counties participate in), please go to our page HERE on Special Needs Registries.
Autism FYI is a family-founded organization that focuses on assisting families and first responders here in Maryland and nationwide, not only to help in preventing wandering but also to support adults with autism in gainful employment and independent living.
Autism FYI maintains a national registry as well. Your family information is provided to first reponders, Autism FYI staff work with emergency personnel when contacted, and your child receives a USB bracelet and other devices where their identifying information can be accessed if they are found and are unable to communicate on their own.
Registration in the Autism FYI program includes the USB Bracelet, decals, membership card, iron-on transfers with your child’s ID number, and a letter to local law enforcement. Additional products and services are available. For more information see their website at https://www.autismfyi.org/
AS YOUR CHILD GROWS UP
As your child becomes a teen, he or she should be taught safety awareness, how to approach police and first responders, and how to interact if he or she is approached by a first responder. We think the more opportunities a person with autism has to interact safely with first responders in non-threatening, casual situations, the less frightened and anxious that person will be in an emergency situation. Our Support Group is working with Pathfinders for Autism and the ARC of Southern Maryland to help foster safety awareness and help our teens and adults “BE SAFE!” Read more about the “BE SAFE Interactive Movie Screenings” HERE and consider this option as part of your teen’s transition process out of high school.
For more information on wandering and elopment, emergency preparedness and safety tips, and assistance for families and first reponsers to aid in search and recovery, as well as links to other resources, go to these sites from Autism Speaks, the CDC, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: