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Why Do Children Wander and What Strategies Can I Use with Them?

Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L

December 3, 2018

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Question

Why do children wander and what strategies can I use with them?

Answer

Why do children wander?

Often, it is goal-directed. If a child wanders away from school and goes back home there may be something he didn't do at home that he wanted to do. He had a goal in mind. Those are the kids that will find any way they can and be very cunning and savvy to meet that goal.

Another reason children wander is more of a bolting or fleeing from something. One family I work with has two young boys with autism. When their younger son elopes, it is more like he is fleeing. If they have a neighborhood get-together, he becomes overwhelmed and he'll just take off running. It doesn't matter where he's going, but he will simply run off.

Other causes of wandering include things like nighttime wandering. Children may wake up and be disoriented and not know where they are. They may elope due to boredom or curiosity. I have a friend who has a young boy with autism, and I think his wandering is because he is curious. It's as if he is thinking, "I don't know what to do here, so I'm just going to go out and look to see what's going on down the street." Another reason for wandering could be due to transition confusion, where the child simply doesn't know where he's supposed to be or what he's supposed to be doing.

Dangers Associated with Wandering 

There are many different dangers associated with wandering. These dangers include:

  1. Drowning
  2. Being struck by a vehicle
  3. Falling
  4. Dehydration
  5. Hypothermia
  6. Abduction
  7. Victimization
  8. Assault

Drowning is the number one cause of death due to wandering in children with autism. In addition, a child could be hit by a vehicle because these children aren't particularly aware of their surroundings. In general, they're not stopping at the street and looking left, right, left. They've got something on their mind and they're going to go. 

Prevent/Educate/Respond

This Big Red Safety Box is a great resource from the National Autism Association. They have a "Prevent-Educate-Respond" campaign with regard to wandering. On their website, they have some helpful videos as well as different printables and resources that you can provide to families.

Prevention. Preventing a child from wandering is a key component, however, as stated earlier, if a child wants to get out, he's going to find a way no matter what. Parents can install home safeguards, such as locks and alarms or door chimes that alert people if the door is open. Are there secure personal safeguards? I have some families that will use temporary tattoos or GPS monitors. One family I know uses the Angel Sense monitor which has GPS on it. They have to keep it securely on the child and it will let the family know where he is located. It can also help them talk to the child when they're out. Another family uses an Apple watch with the location services on it. The trick is getting the child to keep it on. Another branch of prevention is creating community awareness. Let the neighbors know that a child with autism lives in the area, and inform them what to do if they see their child out and about. Remain hyper-vigilant, especially during transition times such as changes in the seasons, or a big gathering with lots of people around. Those can be times that children are more likely to wander. 

Education. Think about some of the skills that we need to target to children with autism. Identify triggers that cause a child to wander and teach them self-help skills. Teach them how to ask for a break versus just bolting. If the child is able to understand, teach them some safety skills, such as why you don't run away and what you should do instead. Teach them to memorize and be able to recite their name, phone number, and address. For older children, you might have to instruct them about what to do if a police officer approaches you, or how to find a safe person if you're lost and you've wandered. There are a lot of examples in the Big Red Safety Box of different things to teach and target. If you have a child with autism in your classroom, incorporate safety skills into their IEP.

What could be triggering their wandering? Could it be bright lights or loud noises? For those kids that are bolting or fleeing, can we use noise canceling headphones? Can we teach them other ways to ask for a break or how to go to a safe area when they're overwhelmed? Can we teach them self-help and calming techniques? Put them in swim lessons, since 91% of wandering-related deaths were due to drowning. If you go on the National Autism website, they list places in your local community with people who specialize in teaching children with autism to swim. Use social stories to teach them about the importance of safety. Practice their personal identification questions, and instruct them on how to dial 911 and how to identify a safe person.

Response. Always call 911 immediately. Law enforcement should treat each case as critical. Provide families with autism elopement forms. The Big Red Toolbox has forms for families that they can complete before the elopement occurs. On the form, they can indicate things like who to call in case of emergency, where the child usually goes when they wander, and what to do when the child is found. That way in an emergency, you automatically have that form filled out. Always search areas of water first. Drowning is a high risk, as many children with autism enjoy the water. If you go to www.missingkids.org/aware, they have a helpful video of what to do if you find a child who may have autism wandering out in the community. Watching that video, and following the tips and suggestions can be helpful from a community perspective. 

This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the course, Safety Tips for Young Children, by Tara Warwick, MS.


tara warwick

Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L

Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L, is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, obtaining her Bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy in 2000 and completing her Master’s degree in rehabilitation sciences with an emphasis in pediatrics in 2005. She has spent her entire career focusing on improving the quality of services for children, primarily targeting children with autism.  She currently co-owns a pediatric therapy practice called Today’s Therapy Solutions and is a consultant for the Oklahoma Autism Center through the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center – Child Study Center. Tara’s specialties include working with children with autism and challenging behavior. She has extensive experience and expertise in behavior management, sensory processing, self-care training (potty training, eating/feeding, dressing, play, etc.), and assistive technology.  She has conducted trainings and provided consultations for schools, parents and health and child care professionals all across the state.


Related Courses

Feeding Tips for Young Children
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  'Very informative, was not aware of most of the content previously'   Read Reviews
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