In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 children has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
These children are from every racial, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic background. Boys are five times more likely to receive this diagnosis than girls (1 in 54 boys are diagnosed) but girls are still being affected.
While these children and their families have a variety of difficulties to overcome, one growing problem is the issue of elopement, more commonly known as "wandering".
Though little research has been done on this issue in the past, the Interactive Autism Network and Kennedy Krieger Institute published a study in 2011 that found almost 50 percent of children with ASD between the ages of 4 and 10 “wandered” or “bolted” from safe environments.
This behavior can be dangerous, of course, and has been the reason for fatalities in this group of children. Injuries have included traffic accidents and drowning.
In the last year, 10 children with autism drowned after wandering away. The study found more than a third of these children are rarely (or not totally) able to communicate identifying information for themselves when and if they are found.
Though all children have short attention spans and may be at risk for wandering, children with autism may wander to get to something of interest, to get away from something that is scary, like a loud noise, or simply because they are confused.
And for the most part, children with ASD do not possess the verbal skills typical children have to correct the situation once they find themselves alone. These episodes of wandering increase an autistic child’s odds of injury, emotional trauma and death.
Polly Tommey, the Editor-in-Chief at Autism File magazine offered the following tips for parents of ASD children via emailed interviewed:
1. Educate the child.
Explain potential dangers in a way they can understand and teach them what to do if they find themselves lost.
2. Teach the child their name, address and phone number.
Practice, practice, practice! Make sure they can recite it from memory.
3. Install chimes on doors and windows.
This is simple yet effective, and allows parents to hear when their child leaves the house.
4. Alert the neighbors beforehand.
It really does take a village to raise a child. Make neighbors aware of an ASD child’s diagnosis and habit of wandering so they can keep an eye out for that child.
5. Use wearable ID.
This will be helpful if the child wanders off and has not yet mastered the ability to verbalize who they are and where they live.
6. Consider a GPS tracking device for the child.
Many parents might see this as an extreme measure, but it can be a good option for a family who deals with this problem often.
7. Address wandering at school, camp and other caregiving settings.
Make sure caregivers fully understand safety protocols and procedures and the child’s inclination to wander.
8. Alert local police in advance.
Giving them clues about the child's likes and dislikes can be valuable if that child is ever lost.
IANCommunity.org. Web. 25 April 25, 2012. “IAN Research Report: Elopement”. http://www.iancommunity.org/cs/ian_research_reports/ian_research_report_elopement
CDC.gov. Web. 25 April 2012. “Autism Facts”. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
Autismfile.com. Web. 25 April 2012.
Reviewed April 25, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith