One moment, your child with autism is standing right in front of you. In the next moment, you can’t find your child anywhere. It’s an experience many parents can relate to.

Autism wandering is both common and serious. Protect your child with a few practical steps, and invest in therapy techniques to prevent tragedy from striking your family.

What Causes Autism Wandering?

Researchers say about half of all children with autism wander , and close to 30% are missing long enough to cause their families concern. Autism wandering isn`t the same as a toddler walking away slowly to sniff the flowers. Autism wandering is frequently fast, purposeful, and dangerous.

Children with autism often wander toward water, and accidental drowning represents 71% of wandering-associated deaths . Traffic injuries follow at close to 20%, says the National Autism Association. An episode can also spark:

● Heatstroke

● Hypothermia

● Falls

● Encounters with dangerous strangers

Experts say autism wandering is typically a form of communication . Your child wants to get closer to something interesting, or the child needs to escape something difficult or bother some. It`s not smart to punish your child for these episodes. Instead, focus on prevention strategies to reduce the likelihood of a repeat performance.

Steps to Prevent Autism Wandering at Home

Researchers say 74% of wandering episodes happen at home . Children can engage in this behavior at school or while out with their families, but often, the problem starts in the household. That gives you an opportunity to take charge and make meaningful changes to keep your child safer.

Start with this to-do list:

Pay attention to triggers. Watch and listen to your child , recommends the Autism Society. Analyze wandering episodes and look for wandering prompts.

Was the room too hot? Was the space noisy or bright? If you can spot triggers, you can develop a robust solution set.

Use technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics says about a third of people with autism who wander don`t give their names, addresses, or phone numbers to helpers. Technology, including GPS-embedded medical alert bracelets, can help you find your child even when words can`t reunite you.

Lock down the exits. Hire an expert to walk through your home and spot vulnerabilities. New window and door locks, a security system, and strong fencing could keep your child on your property when the urge to wander hits.

Develop a safety plan. Talk with your neighbors about your child`s willingness to wander. Reach out to community leaders too, including members of your local neighborhood watch association. If your child walks away, these helpers could speed reunification .

Allow safe exploration. Does your child always wander away to watch the water or pet the horses? Find safe ways to satisfy that urge. Perhaps your child would like a small water fountain, or you could build a supervised horse visit into each day. Addressing known goals could keep your child at home.

Reassess your plan. As your child ages, abilities shift. A toddler may be stopped by a deadbolt, for example, but an adolescent could quickly move past that barrier. Watch and adapt as needed to keep your child safe.

Sign up for resources. The National Autism Association`s Big Red Safety Box is packed with wandering prevention tools, including first responder profile forms, emotion identification cards, and window alarms. Sign up for the box online .

Can Therapy Help With Wandering?

Parents can take plenty of prevention steps at home. But sometimes, professionals can do even more to prevent wandering episodes from starting or worsening.

Use an expert to:

Develop relaxation strategies. Ask a therapist to teach your child wandering alternatives. Relaxation techniques, including deep breathing or visualization, could ease distress for some children with autism, so they can lean on these techniques rather than wandering.

Teach safety skills. Ask your child`s therapist to focus on specific strategies, such as responding to safety commands or stating names and phone numbers. If your child is already participating in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, these goals could slide into sessions and help your child stay safer.

Teach your child to swim. Drowning is a real risk for children with autism who wander. Find a swimming instructor with autism experience, and ensure your child can swim both in a swim suit and in full clothing. This approach can`t prevent drowning episodes , experts warn. But if your child does slip into the water during an episode, swimming skills could buy you time as you form a search party.

Analyze episodes. If your child engages in wandering in a predictable pattern, ask your therapist for help. Set up an appointment at the time and in the location when wandering happens. An ABA therapist might spot cues you miss, and together, you can develop a plan to ease the urge to walk away.

What to Do When Your Child Wanders

If your child does wander from your home, don`t panic. Quick thinking can help you come back together in health and safety.

Your action plan includes these steps:

Start to search. Ask a family member to look over your home and your yard. Go to the spots where your child commonly goes during an episode.

Reach out to your community. Tell your neighbors and community leaders that your child is missing. If you`ve already spoken to them about your child`s urges, this talk could go quickly, and they’ll be ready to help.

Call the authorities. Call your local police department and tell them your child is missing. Forms within the Big Red Safety Box could be useful as you hold this conversation.

Stay home. Someone should be available at home, in case your child returns. That person can also work as a hub of information for others looking for your child.

When your child is returned to your family, take a moment to process your emotions. Your child didn`t wander to upset or terrify you. This is part of the disorder’s process. Respond with compassion, if you can. Then adjust your prevention plans accordingly.

Each episode gives you valuable data you can use to prevent the wandering urge from striking again. Don`t let that opportunity pass you by. Use the lessons to help you keep your child even safer in the future.

References

Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder . (November 2012). Pediatrics.

Wandering . National Autism Association.

Reported Wandering Behavior Among Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or Intellectual Disability . (July 2016). Journal of Pediatrics.

Safe and Sound . Autism Society.

Keep Kids With Autism Safe From Wandering: Tips From the AAP . (December 2019). American Academy of Pediatrics.

Wandering Prevention Resources . Autism Speaks.

Elopement and Autism . (April 2018). Organization for Autism Research.

12 Ways to Prevent, and Respond to, ASD Wandering . National Autism Association.

NAA`s Big Red Safety Box . National Autism Association.

Autism-Related Wandering: Fact Sheet for Occupational Therapy . National Autism Association.

Disability and Safety: Information on Wandering (Elopement) . (September 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wandering Prevention in Individuals With Autism . Nassau Suffolk Services for Autism.

Wandering by Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Key Clinical Factors and the Role of Schools and Pediatricians . (September 2018). Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

Study Confirms: Autism Wandering Common & Scary . (August 2018). Autism Speaks.

Key Findings: Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder More Likely to Wander Than Children in Other Study Groups . (January 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.