What to do When Children with Autism Wander

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Autistic children often engage in wandering behavior. These tips will help you prevent your special needs or child with from wandering. #autismawareness #autismparenting

A study back in 2012, confirmed what many parents of autistic children already knew.  Elopement, also known as wandering, is a terrifyingly common occurrence of children with autism.   Twice this summer already, we have heard of two little boys with autism wandering off and drowning.  We have had our own incidents with wandering (and just plain bolting away!) that have caused a ton of stress on everyone!

As a mom of three children on the spectrum, I wish I would have known more about an elopement in autism.  So, to help provide that information to you, today we are going to go over autism and wandering.  We will answer what elopement is, why it happens, and steps you can do to safeguard your child with autism from wandering.

Autism and Wandering

Autistic children often engage in wandering behavior. These tips will help you prevent your special needs or child with from wandering. #autismawareness #autismparenting

What is Elopement?

When many people hear the word elope, they instantly think of a couple sneaking off the Vegas to get married. Elopement (especially when referring to autism) is when a person leaves an area without permission or notification which can easily put the person in a potentially dangerous situation. 

This can be when a child either wanders or bolts away from a safe area such as a classroom, parent, or home.  As you can imagine, the combination of autism and wandering can be a very dangerous mix.

Why do children with autism wander?

This is one of those questions that doesn’t have a steady answer.  According to the study done in 2012 appears online in the journal Pediatrics, these are the top 5 reasons why children with autism wander:

Within our home, we have three children with autism who are very different from each other.  Our youngest daughter wanders due to anxiety.  When she is in a full meltdown, there is a very high chance she will bolt to escape her anxiety. 

Our son won’t wander off when he has anxiety. However, he will wander “just because.”  Whatever catches his attention, he is bound and determined to go to it.  He is the one that worries me the most as his wandering is much less predictable.  

Our oldest daughter with autism doesn’t wander at all. Each child with autism is different and will have different reasons/causes for wandering.

What Can I do to Stop my child with autism from wandering?

One of the first things you can do to help prevent wandering is to understand what type of wander they are (impulsive, goal-focused, random, sudden runner, etc.).  Once you have done this, you will need to determine the trigger that causes them to elope. Knowing the triggers of why they wander helps greatly.

If you can avoid the trigger, you can avoid many cases of wandering or be prepared for it to happen.  Some triggers (like sudden running) are not predictable, but you can take precautions to help keep them safe.  For our children, it normally happenings during transitioning.

Autistic children often engage in wandering behavior. These tips will help you prevent your special needs or child with from wandering. #autismawareness #autismparenting

What precautions should I take?

There are several precautionary steps you can take for if your child with autism wanders off.  Out of this entire list, the first one is most important.  Please teach your child with autism to swim

Many children with autism are drawn to water, others can easily just run into a body of water without intending to.  Either way, knowing how to swim is the difference between life and death.

Autism and wandering, unfortunately, tend to go hand in hand.  Just like any other concern, educating yourself is the best preventable measure you can take.  Another great resource I have found is the Big Red Safety Toolkit from the National Autism Association.  You can download your free copy here.

By TheMomKind

Alicia Trautwein is an Autism advocate, writer, motivational speaker, and dedicated mom of four. Alicia’s desire to advocate for Autism comes from her own autism diagnosis and that of her three children, niece, and brother. Her life’s mission is to educate on autism acceptance and change the world for future generations of autistic individuals.

13 Comments

  • Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and what other parents can do to help their little one who are going through this.

  • Very informative, and great that you can figure out the triggers so you can be preventative.

  • macynbrown16 -

    Great recommendations for safety precautions! Those things can help with parents peace of mind.

  • Thank you for this post! I was a special education teacher and dealt with elopement of students too many times! It’s great to read something that can help us and their parents!

  • Thank you so much for sharing this. I have three children on the spectrum, a 5 year old and twin 2.5 year old who just got diagnosed in July. Our youngest of the twins is a wanderer and I’m looking for ways to keep him safe!

  • Triggers good info. Wish I knew this 20 yrs ago. Taught my son to swim very young. Young adult elopements horrible. Can’t get ANYONE (AFH places, caseworker, etc) to understand gaming addiction causes overstimulation &sensory shutdown. He runs off& violent behavior. I’m at a loss.
    Thank you

  • The tips are very useful. Thanks. My eldest son wandered off quite often when he was younger. We are blessed that many people had helped us during this period. He had gone missing once for nearly 4 hours and the entire neighborhood went out of their way to search for him. This kind of support is very vital to a family with autistic kids (I have 2 autistic boys and another with ADHD/Dyslexia). The tags/labels helped a lot as there will know where to send him back. My son is now 16 years old and is managing reasonably well. Believe in yourself and the child, and goodness of people.

  • Robert Viava -

    Thank you so much for this information! My son has started wandering and it is terrifying! I just ordered a chain lock for our door, the angelsense, and the stop signs!

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