Autism Wandering Prevention (How to Keep Children Safe)

September 7, 2022

A Guide to Preventing Wandering in Children with Autism

What is Wandering?

It may be confusing to some why a person may decide to wander away from their home. What we do know is that wandering (also known as eloping) is a complex behavior that is common in individuals with autism. In fact, statistics show that almost half of all children with autism engage in wandering behavior. Wandering itself is not dangerous, but external dangers such as drowning and traffic accidents can be fatal, which is why it’s crucial to prevent and understand the behavior as much as possible so that you can keep your child safe. 

People with autism wander as a way to communicate something they want or to escape something they don’t like, especially when their verbal abilities are limited. Individuals with autism wander in many supervision scenarios, whether it’s at school, at home with parents, or in new environments. 

Steps to Prevent Wandering

While wandering can occur in any scenario, parents should take note, and even record details, of scenarios when their child wanders. Tracking common triggers and reasons they wander can help prevent those scenarios from potentially becoming dangerous. Some triggers could include loud noises, bright lights, or a potentially upsetting interaction.

Another common wandering trigger could be lack of sleep, sleep disturbances, or lack of quality sleep. More than 80% of children with autism experience sleeping issues. When a child is sleep-deprived, other behaviors can be exacerbated.

While understanding triggers are an important aspect to preventing wandering, it’s also critical to install locks, door alarms, security systems, and fences so that if wandering occurs, your child is safe and protected and you are notified. There are experts who can come into your home to identify vulnerable areas or places that could be unsafe, so that you can install effective protective equipment best suited for your family and your home. 

Preparing for a wandering incident can give you confidence in your ability to handle it if it occurs. Create a plan with your entire family so that when/if your child wanders, your neighbors, friends and community members are aware of how to help your child and how to notify you. Label your child’s clothing with their name and contact information, as many children with autism are not able to communicate their name or a way to get in touch with a trusted adult. Consider purchasing child safety alarm bracelets, which can alert caregivers and parents when a child has stepped outside of a safe perimeter. 

How ABA Therapy Helps Address Wandering

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy helps your child reach their fullest potential in life, and can be a beneficial tool in understanding and preventing wandering incidents. Your ABA therapist is a valuable partner who can listen to your concerns about wandering and your wandering experiences and help you come up with a plan to address it and hopefully prevent it in the future. Notify your ABA therapist if wandering occurs so they can help refine your strategies to address triggers that may be causing them.

In addition to ABA therapy, consider enrolling your child in swim lessons so that if/when they wander and they fall in a body of water, they can swim to the side and avoid fatal drowning accidents. Discuss with your swimming instructor the benefits of simulating wandering incidents where your child is fully clothed and needs to swim with heavy clothes and shoes on. This scenario can help your child gain strength to swim in a real-life scenario. 

What To Do If  Your Child Does Wander

If you suddenly realize your child is not home and that they are wandering, immediately refer to your action plan. Begin notifying neighbors and community members, as well as authorities and your local police department. Begin searching for your child, but also ensure one adult is at your home if the authorities need to find you and provide updates. While it will be upsetting and emotionally draining, avoid panicking or blaming anyone. Instead, try to understand why your child may have wandered and how to prevent it from happening again. Immediately following the incident, notify your pediatrician and ABA therapist.

Avoid punishing your child as their behavior should not be viewed as negative. In fact, wandering was their way of trying to communicate something that they need. Instead, audit the incident and what could have triggered the wandering behavior and adjust your preventive plans for the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Does Eloping Mean in Autism?

Eloping, or elopement, is another term for when children wander from family members or caregivers. It is a traumatizing and upsetting situation, but also very common.

Does Therapy Help Preventing Wandering?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is a valuable tool to better understand wandering behaviors and triggers and teach children skills, such as communicating what they want to get, instead of attempting to obtain the item on their own, leading to wandering.

How Do I Stop My Child with Autism from Pacing?

While there are strategies to reduce the incidence of pacing, it may not be entirely possible to stop the stimming behavior completely. Pacing is another normal and common repetitive behavior that individuals with autism display. It is another way that they manage and process their emotions.

Do you have more questions about preventing wandering in your child with autism? Call Acorn Health at 844-244-1818 to learn if ABA therapy could help.