It’s estimated that one out every 68 individuals has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and according to a 2012 study in Pediatrics, 49% of children with ASD have a tendency to wander or bolt from safe settings. Individuals with ASD are often attracted to water, yet have little to no sense of danger. Drowning is a leading cause of death in children with ASD.
ASD wandering behaviors happen under every type of supervision and are usually a form of communication — an “I need,” “I want,” or “I don’t want.” Individuals with ASD will wander or bolt to get to something of interest, or away from something bothersome.
Wandering is the tendency for an individual to try to leave the safety of a responsible person’s care or a safe area, which can result in potential harm or injury. This might include running off from adults at school or in the community, leaving the classroom without permission, or leaving the house when the family is not looking. This behavior is considered common and short-lived in toddlers, but it may persist or re-emerge in children and adults with ASD. Children with autism have challenges with social and communication skills and safety awareness. This makes wandering a potentially dangerous behavior.
- Nearly half of children with autism engage in wandering behavior
- Increased risks are associated with autism severity
- More than one third of children with autism who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
- Half of families report they have never received advice or guidance about elopement from a professional
- Accidental drowning accounts for approximately 90% of lethal outcomes
- Other dangers include dehydration; heat stroke; hypothermia; traffic injuries; falls; physical restraint; encounters with strangers
IF SOMEONE WITH AUTISM IS MISSING
In the event that a person with ASD is missing, search areas of highest threat first, such as nearby sources of water, traffic, & train tracks. Other areas to search may include enclosed tight spaces, transit systems, favorite restaurants, parks, neighbors’ homes, and open areas, such as fields or farms. Some children or adults may wear a tracking device.
People with ASD may not be able to understand danger, or respond to questions or verbal commands. Because many individuals with ASD go directly to water, it’s important to treat each case as CRITICAL.
For prolonged searches, use favorite things to safely draw the child or adult with ASD to safety. This may include favorite songs, phrases or a parent’s voice. Also be aware of any fears or dislikes that may hinder search efforts. Because every person with autism is different, seek input from the child or adult’s immediate caregiver.
Search efforts should be ongoing. Some children with autism have survived as many as six days without adequate food or water.
ONCE THE CHILD OR ADULT WITH ASD IS FOUND
- Maintain a calm and relaxed environment.
- Contain the child or adult in a passive way to keep him or her from running or bolting and avoid use of restraints.
- Check for any identification such as a medical bracelet.
- Bring a parent or guardian immediately to the recovery site, whenever possible, and tell the child or adult that person is on the way.
- Approach the child at his or her level, kneeling if necessary, and speak in a normal tone of voice using simple, non-figurative phrases.
- Use a task-and-reward process to ease anxiety and enhance compliance using phrases such as, “First we are going to stay here, and then your father is going to come here.”
- Use communication aids, written instructions, drawings, or prompts if possible.
- Use humor and familiar topics when possible. For instance if the child is wearing a shirt with a cartoon character on it, talk to the child about the character to help lessen any anxiety the child may be feeling and calm the child if upset.
- Contact the National Autism Association for further reunification assistance at 1-877-622-2884. For more information about children with autism and resources for families, such as the Big Red Safety Box, visit www.nationalautismassociation.org.
- Visit the National Autism Association’s websites at www.nationalautismassociation.org and the AWAARE Collaboration at www.awaare.org for additional information about children with autism.
SIX IMPORTANT TIPS TO IMPROVE RESPONSE TIME
- Have readily available information about an individual with autism
- Use technology tools, such as tracking devices and Reverse 911
- Use Alert Systems, such as Endangered Missing Advisories (EMAs)
- Train on how to properly interact with a person who has autism
- Listen to the caregiver for clues – they know the child best
- Always search areas of immediate threat first, such as nearby water and busy roads
To assist in search & rescue efforts, the National Autism Association has developed, or assisted in developing, the following resources immediately available for download:
- National Center for Missing & Exploited Children Search Guidelines | En Espanol
- Big Red Safety Toolkit for First Responders
- First Responder Brochure
- One-Sheeter for Law Enforcement
- Search Checklist
SEARCH TOOLS & ASSISTANCE
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: 1-800-THE-LOST
- Reverse 911: http://www.achildismissing.org 954-763-1288
- EMA Guidelines: http://www.ncjrs.gov
- “Take Me Home” Software: email email@example.com
- Autism Risk Management: http://www.autismriskmanagement.com
- The Autism & Law Enforcement Education Coalition: http://www.sncarc.org/alec.htm
- The Law Enforcement Awareness Network: http://www.leanonus.org
- Autism Alliance for Local Emergency Responder Training: http://www.AutismAlert.org
You can also help caregivers ensure safety at home & school by providing these free safety resources.
ABOUT NATIONAL AUTISM ASSOCIATION (NAA)
Founded in 2003, NAA is a parent-run advocacy organization and the leading voice on urgent issues related to autism safety, autism abuse, crisis prevention, and autism-related wandering prevention and response. Over the last seven years, NAA has provided $100,000 to law enforcement for tracking devices, distributed over 15,000 wandering-prevention safety boxes to autism families, and created AWAARE.org.
For wandering-prevention resources, please visit awaare.org.