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Managing the wandering tendencies of kids on the autism spectrum

Managing the wandering tendencies of kids on the autism spectrum

Similar to the wandering behaviors in seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s, children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are prone to wandering away from a safe environment. In fact, according to a recent study published in Pediatrics, nearly half of all children with autism wander. Because many children with ASD have challenges in areas of language and cognitive function, it is critical for parents to understand ways to prevent--and better respond to--wandering incidents.


Do secure your home

Deadbolt and hook-and-eye locks are household must-haves, but don’t forget to also secure exterior doors and gates. Other safeguards include door/window chimes, security alarms, baby monitors, fencing with locked gates and garage door openers that are out of reach. If you own a pool, it is imperative that you put a fence around it. Use gates that self-close and self-latch higher than your children's reach. Remember to remove all pool toys when not in use. Also make do-it-yourself prompts, such as stop signs, to adhere to doors and windows.

Do prepare neighbors, first responders and schools

These individuals can be your child’s life line in the event of an emergency, so prepare them ahead of time. Provide essential information about your child, nearby water sources, favorite attractions, medical information, emergency contact information and other relevant details.
 Because there is no mandate that requires schools to report a wandering or bolting incident, be sure that all school personnel understand the importance of immediately notifying you of any wandering attempts.

Do enroll your child in swimming lessons

The vast majority of children with ASD who wander go directly to water, so lessons are critical. Find an autism-friendly YMCA in your area by visiting the website,, or ask your pediatrician if there are organizations that offer swimming lessons for children with special needs in your area. Some of your child’s swim lessons should include lessons with his/her clothes and shoes on.

Do create a family wandering emergency plan

Make sure that your family has a plan in case of a wandering emergency. Involve other caregivers, such as grandparents or personnel at school, in developing the safety plan. The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration has a sample plan that can be downloaded. Visit

Do adopt a multi-layered approach

Supervision, security, survival skills and safeguards (such as tracking devices and ID’s) are all part of a multi-layered approach. Ideally, underlying causes of wandering behaviors should be identified and addressed. As always, the ultimate goal is for children to understand potential dangers and to learn ways to keep themselves safe.


Do not let your guard down

While some GPS retailers and other safety vendors market their products using phrases, such as “peace of mind,� understand that no safeguard is 100% effective. As a result, it is always best to double up on safeguards and use a multi-layered approach, which includes close and constant supervision.

Do not believe that more eyes equals more protection

Family parties, backyard barbecues and casual get-togethers may give you the false impression that more people are watching your child. But this is not the case. Always stay vigilant and establish a “tag� strategy by assigning a responsible adult to be your child’s primary supervisor during an agreed-upon period of time. Ensure the tagged caregiver fully understands his/her responsibilities and expectations.

Do not allow independence to overshadow safety

If your child’s school insists on teaching independence, re-direct them to the concept of “pre-independence,� which entails teaching safety skills, danger awareness, self-help skills, self-regulation and survival skills--all of which can naturally lead to a safe form of independence. Written and agreed-upon plans should be created in an organized, thoughtful and consistent manner that begins with understanding your child and bases safe teaching methods on how your child will best respond.

Do not assume your child dislikes all forms of water

Does your child dislike bath time, showers, running water or even pools? He or she may perceive lakes, ponds and rivers quite differently. Varying colors, reflective patterns and other factors may tempt his/her curiosity, so do not disregard nearby water sources as a possible location for a missing child.

Do not use window units or screens

Many children have dislodged air conditioning and fan units with tragic consequences. So take extreme caution, or if possible, avoid these altogether. Because window and door screens can easily push out or tear, it is best to keep windows and main doors locked at all times.

Jumping cartoon

The issue of wandering is a serious concern for many families in the autism community. But with appropriate precautions and education, caregivers can significantly reduce the risk of wandering.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: Â© Shane Morris -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Lori McIlwainExecutive Director

Lori McIlwain has a 13-year-old son with Autism and is Co-founder and Executive Director of the National Autism Association (NAA). In 2007, Lori began advocating for federal resources that would reduce and eliminate emotional trauma, injuries an...

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