Recent studies1 have shown that nearly half of all children with autism between the ages of 4 and 10 are prone to bolting or wandering from familiar, safe places. Although the exact cause for autism wandering (also called elopement) is unknown, it is thought that these children are most often curious or explorative, and may be seeking their favorite play spot such as a nearby lake or playground, for example.
The Interactive Autism Network (IAN), an organization that focuses on the autism community and empowering parents and caregivers of children with autism, leads the research into the issue of wandering. IAN recently surveyed via the internet over 800 families of autistic individuals. The survey’s results indicated that the top five motivations for children with autism wandering, from highest to lowest, included:
- Favorite places
- Escaping demands/anxiety
- Pursuing a special topic
- Escaping sensory discomfort
Read more about the study at: http://www.iancommunity.org/cs/ian_research_reports/ian_research_report_elopement. 1
Accordingly, caregivers go to great lengths to keep their autistic family member secure and safe. Interestingly enough, though, they may not consider the unintended consequences of their remedies. True, children with autism may enjoy sleeping with weighted blankets or in smaller, dark, closed-in spaces. In contrast, most parents and caregivers of children with autism will agree that their charges are very particular about who touches them; the environment in which they play; and, when/how they are allowed to come and go from such places. When their routines or surroundings are upset, they react negatively and sometimes their behavior even becomes volatile. Further, children with autism experience confinement as highly stressful. Ironically, their discomfort and anxiety may result in the unwanted wandering that their caregivers are trying to prevent.
A significant number of parents who fear nighttime wandering choose to lock their child in his/her bedroom with only their bed and a few toys. While this practice keeps them safe in one regard, is it healthy in others? Adhering to a sleep schedule helps to ensure that a child with autism will get the proper amount of sleep. And, being well-rested greatly improves their overall mood and behavior. However, it is common for all children occasionally to become afraid when they realize that they are alone in their dark bedroom. (Remember those Boogie Men in your closet?) A child with autism may experience anxiety so intense that, in fact, that they are unable to sleep. Eventually, they may begin to resent and resist bedtime. Or, in a worse case, try to escape from their caregiver to avoid being contained.
Also, the practice of securing an individual with autism in their bedroom at night is unsafe. Parents must seriously weigh the degree of safety provided by containment against the risk of their child being trapped during a fire. Further, what becomes of the child in the event of break in or a parent suffering from a sudden medical emergency? These situations become even more dangerous if first responders are not aware that an autistic child is in the home; the bedroom in which they sleep; and, whether or not they are verbally responsive.
So, what can parents do to keep their autistic children safe from wandering without unintentionally creating anxiety for them? There are a number of “dos” and “don’ts” below that have been taken from various sources and authorities on autism.
What You Can Do:
- Install door chimes on household doors.
- Get a security system that alerts you when your child has left the premises.
- Place stop signs on all doors and work with your child and his/her school to help them understand what this means.
- Consider using nanny cams or video baby monitors in play areas where your autistic child plays regularly.
- If nighttime wandering and excessive activity are concerns, consider starting a regular exercise regimen before bedtime to expend surplus energy. Having a regular bedtime routine is extremely important in keeping stress levels and, consequently night wandering incidents, low.
- Provide your local first responder center (911) an Autism Elopement Alert Form detailing your child’s specific condition and wandering behaviors. Carry an identical copy of this form with you at all times (purse, wallet, etc.), as well. You may download a copy from http://www.awaare.org/docs/AUTISM%20ELOPEMENT%20ALERT%20FORM.pdf
- Teach your child to swim at a certified swim class. If you have neighbors with swimming pools or ponds that are not fenced, alert them to your child’s condition and explain the importance of their being aware that he/she may be curious and that he/she may not respond to verbal directions or warnings.
- Consider a tracking device such as LoJack SafetyNet, Project Lifesaver, or even GPS technology tracking for your child. Project Lifesaver is generally offered through participating Sheriff’s offices, so check with your county to see if you qualify.
What Not to Do:
- Do not lock your child in a room with no quick escape. In the event of fire or other emergency, first responders need to be able to quickly access your child. Do not bar windows and doors to prevent your child from exiting as these same bars keep first responders from entering.
- If your child begins wandering away while in the yard, do not yell at them. This instills fear. Instead, try enticing them to return to you in a loving but firm tone.
- Do not fear your local Sheriff’s officers or other emergency responders. These professionals protect you and your loved ones, and should be relied upon for their expertise and resources.
- Do not portray police officers, firemen, and emergency medical service responders as being bad, or mean people. Children, whether autistic or not, should understand that these men and women are friends and people that can be trusted in the event of disaster or tragedy.
- Do not isolate yourself from the support of family, friends, and community resources. While it may be challenging to handle public meltdowns and wandering, remember that most wandering incidents occur in highly supervised places which are often close to home.
Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education: http://www.awaare.org
Brochure for Family and Friends: http://www.awaare.org/docs/wanderingbrochure.pdf
First Responder Form: http://www.awaare.org/docs/AUTISM%20ELOPEMENT%20ALERT%20FORM.pdf
Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110420143702.htm
The IAN: http://www.iancommunity.org/cs/ian_research_reports/ian_research_report_elopement
USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/medical/health/medical/autism/story/2011/03/Dangerous-wandering-a-lesser-known-side-of-autism/45338878/1
LoJack SafetyNet Information: https://safetynetbylojack.com/wordpress/