Autism now affects 1 in 68 individuals and according to a 2012 study published in Pediatrics, almost half 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.
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 autism. Children with autism have challenges with social and communication skills and safety awareness. This makes wandering a potentially dangerous behavior.
Wandering may also be referred to as: Elopement; Bolting; Fleeing; Running.
Goal-directed wandering: wandering with the purpose of getting to, or away from, something Bolting/Fleeing: the act of suddenly running or bolting, usually to quickly get away from something
Drowning; Dehydration; Heat Stroke; Hypothermia; Traffic Injuries; Falls; Physical Restraint; Encounters with strangers; Encounters with law enforcement
- 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
SIMPLE TOOLS FOR SCHOOLS
- Door & Window Chimes: very inexpensive & effective. Available 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.
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 autism-related 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.
- Immediately notify parents of wandering incidents, even if the incident seems small or insignificant.
- Thoroughly assess any wandering incident, how it happened, and putting 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.