Six Tips for Preventing Wandering in People with Autism

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As Autism Awareness Month 2017 comes to an end, we were heartened to learn of a new study which found that wandering, a common behavior among people with autism and other developmental disabilities, may be treatable with behavioral interventions.

The study, “Clinical Outcomes of Behavioral Treatments for Elopement in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Other Developmental Disabilities,” provides hope in the face of the deeply disturbing conclusions of another more recent study, “Injury Mortality in Individuals with Autism,” that found children and teens with autism are 40 times as likely to die from injuries as those without ASDs. Additionally, and equally as shocking, the study found the average age of death for those with ASDs was only 36 years old as opposed to 72 in the non-autistic population. Clearly, it is imperative that we find effective ways of preventing senseless injuries and deaths that result from wandering. Here are some tips and resources that will help keep more people with autism safe.

1. Swimming lessons
According to Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and the senior author of the study on injury mortality, “Once a child is diagnosed with autism, usually between two years and three years of age, pediatricians and parents should immediately help enroll the child in swimming classes, before any behavioral therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy. Swimming ability for kids with autism is an imperative survival skill,” Dr Li said. In addition to their tendency for wandering, Li also noted that children and teens with autism often gravitate toward water. “With impaired communication and social skills, autistic kids tend to seek relief of their heightened anxiety from the serenity of water bodies. Unfortunately, this behavior too often leads to tragedies,” said Li.

2. Wander-proof your home or school
People who wander may require the use of locks and alarms on doors and windows to keep them from eloping or from getting into cabinets or drawers with products that could be dangerous to them. Outdoors keep individuals with autism away from unsupervised swimming pools or busy streets by installing alarms and fences with heavy duty locks.

The Autism Society says “door and window alarms can be a key investment” in keeping children with autism safe. The Society urges parents to consult with a professional who “can advise [them] of the legal and larger safety implications of the security measure [they] are considering.” For example, when installing locks, be sure to “have immediate access to any locked room in the event of fire or other emergency.”

3. Safety resources
In an effort to prevent tragedies caused by wandering, the National Autism Awareness Association created the digital, downloadable Big Red Safety Toolkits. Available free of charge to parents, teachers and first responders, the kits include resources such as caregiver checklists, stop sign prompts, samples of physician’s and IEP letters and recommended social stories to help children and teens learn about the dangers of wandering. There is also information about affordable safety tools, a family wandering emergency plan and first responder alert forms.

4. Tracking devices
Devices such as the AngelSense, a GPS and voice-monitoring system especially designed for people with special needs allows caregivers to keep track of their child’s whereabouts and to receive alerts when the child deviates from his schedule or leaves the premises. If a caregiver determines the child has eloped, the device provides (among other things) location updates every 10 seconds, enables caregivers to hear background noise at the child’s location, and helps to determine the location of the missing child and how far it is from the caregiver’s location.

5. Educate children and others
According to Stages of Learning, many children with autism lack knowledge of what to do in the event that they become lost. If your child or a child you care for has the cognitive and comprehension skills to understand safety precautions, teach her some strategies. Children can be taught to speak with an adult such as a police officer or store-owner; tools such as books, educational videos and social stories can be helpful in teaching children about the dangers of traffic and water.

Also be sure that first responders and all school personnel are aware of a child’s tendency to wander. Along with school administrators, come up with a plan to prevent wandering. One remedy is for the child to have a full-time aide; another is to install locks, fences, etc.

6. Make sure children carry identification
A 2012 study found that “Approximately 35 percent of children who wander are rarely able to communicate their name, home address or phone number.” Try ordering an Alert Me band or visit National Autism Association’s Big Red Safety Shop for a variety of identification options.

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