Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) now affects 1 in 68 individuals, and according to a 2012 study published in Pediatrics, 49% are prone to wandering away from a safe environment such as school or home. Individuals with autism are often attracted to water, yet have little to no sense of danger. Drowning is a leading cause of death in children with autism.
Awareness alone is a valuable safeguard, so it’s critical that school staff is warned about ASD wandering tendencies, and how to prevent wandering.
WHAT IS ASD WANDERING?
ASD Wandering, also referred to as ASD Elopement, is the tendency for an individual with an ASD 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 autism. Children with autism have challenges with social and communication skills and safety awareness. This makes wandering a potentially dangerous behavior.
ASD WANDERING DANGERS
The primary danger of ASD wandering is drowning, but vehicular/train accidents, heatstroke, hypothermia, and falls are others causes of death. Other dangers can include dehydration, exposure, physical restraint, emotional trauma, and encounters with strangers & law enforcement
ASD WANDERING DATA
➢ 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
➢ Accidental drowning accounts for approximately 90% of lethal outcomes
ASD WANDERING INSIGHTS
ASD wandering is 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 occurs under every type of adult supervision, and across all settings.
Over the last three years, roughly 13% of ASD wandering incidents were from a school setting, and 15% of overall incidents reported by the media have ended in death according to NAA.
SIMPLE TOOLS FOR SCHOOLS
The central source for ASD Wandering is the AWAARE website. Simple tool recommendations include:
- Door & Window Chimes: very inexpensive & effective. Available through NAA, or at most Radio Shack and Walmart Stores.
- Simple Stop Signs: teachers/aides can print and adhere stop signs to doors and windows as a visual prompt.
- Social Stories: create social stories that teach students with autism to stay with a trusted adult.
- Color-coded Prompts: use specific objects or tools to demonstrate when it’s outside time versus inside time. For example, when the teacher is wearing a green wristband, then it’s okay to go outside.
- Ask parents to download and fill out a student profile sheet that contains important contact information, and information about fleeing triggers, and favorite attractions.
STEPS TO PREVENT WANDERING
- Ensure close adult supervision of any student with a cognitive impairment.
- Ensure proper architectural barriers around school grounds are in place.
- For any at-risk child, conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment to help pinpoint underlying reasons for wandering/bolting and develop a Behavioral Intervention Plan to address these reasons.
- Ensure all school staff is familiar with the risks of ASD wandering and are trained to respond properly in the event of a wandering emergency.
- Ensure school staff follows proper protocol in keeping gates and doors closed and school grounds secure.
- Being aware, and ensure school staff is aware, of any known triggers that could prompt fleeing in any child (loud noises, meltdowns, etc.) and working to prevent and/or appropriately respond to these episodes in a manner that ensures the child’s safety.
- For a student who demonstrates bolting behaviors due to fear or stress, etc., assign a common area “safe place” they can run to, such as the library, so they stay within the building and can be easily found. No seclusion rooms, closets, etc., as these can be dangerous, inhumane, and actually cause bolting behaviors.
- Assign a 1:1 aide to students with autism who are especially prone to wandering.
- Ensure all emergency response protocols are up to date and enforced.
STEPS TO RESPOND TO WANDERING
- Always call 911 immediately if a student is missing.
- Always search areas that pose the highest threat first, such as nearby water and busy streets.
- Immediately notify parents of wandering incidents, even if the incident seems small or insignificant.
- Thoroughly assess any wandering incident, how it happened, and put measures in place to prevent reoccurrence.
- Because students are often shifted to different classrooms for therapy sessions, etc., it’s important that those prone to wandering are never left unattended.
- There are many risk and safety management organizations that offer training programs for school staff members. Companies like Crisis Prevention Institute can be a valuable resource for schools and daycares in need of safety training.
- Children with autism are especially vulnerable in the warmer months, and all exterior doors and gates should remain closed. All summer day camp settings should maintain close adult supervision, strong security measures and have proper emergency protocols in place. You can also help ensure your students’ safety at home by sharing prevention and safety resources with caregivers who have a child with autism.
For severe cases in need of comprehensive strategies, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 877.622.2884.
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.