Keep Kids with Autism Safe from Wandering: Tips from the AAP

Keep Kids with Autism Safe from Wandering: Tips from the AAP


Anyone who’s been a parent long enough has felt that panic—often only temporary—when a child wanders out of sight. Kids can get lost anywhere—at an amusement park, in a store, in a crowd, and sometimes even right in your own neighborhood. Many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) know this feeling all too well.

The Scope of the Problem:

The first study to quantify the scope of the problem was published in Pediatrics in 2012. Results were significant. Of the 1,218 children with ASD who were studied, almost half of those children had wandered off from home, school, or another safe place at least once after age 4. Many were missing long enough to cause concern, were in danger of drowning, or were at risk of being hurt by traffic.

What Parents Can Do:

There are things parents can do to protect their c​hildren with ASD from this very real and scary danger.

Here are tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Know wandering triggers. Children with ASD can be impulsive and typically wander or bolt from a safe setting to get to something of interest, such as water, the park, or train tracks—or to get away from a situation they find stressful or frightening, such as one with loud noises, commotion, or bright lights. 
  • Secure your home—regardless of your child’s age. Shut and lock doors that lead outside. Consider putting alarms on doors to alert you if a door has been opened.
  • Work on communication and behavior strategies. Teaching your child strategies to self-calm when stressed and appropriately respond to “no” can make a big difference. Make sure your child’s teachers and other family members understand how important it is to keep your child engaged and busy to reduce his or her urge or opportunity to wander.
  • Set expectations. Before going out in a public place, communicate the plan with your child and other family members—including the timeline and rules to follow. Consider noise-canceling headphones if noise is a trigger, and use the “tag team” approach to make certain your child is always supervised by a trusted adult.
  • Consider monitoring technology and identification. More than 1/3 of children with ASD who wander are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number. It may be helpful to have things like GPS devices, medical alert tags, and even their name marked in clothing. Project Lifesaver and SafetyNet Tracking or other programs may be available through your local law enforcement agencies.
  • Rest. Children with ASD may be less hyperactive and less likely to wander during the night if they have a sleep management plan and a regular sleep schedule. Caregivers who get enough sleep are also more vigilant. Many children with ASD may have sleep problems.  If your child is having problems going to sleep or staying asleep, talk to your pediatrician for further evaluation and treatment.  
Drowning is the cause of death for almost 3 in 4 children with autism who wander off alone.Reinforce water and swimming safety. Home swimming pools should be surrounded by a fence that prevents a child from getting to the pool from the house. There is no substitute for at least a four-foot-high, non-climbable, four-sided fence with a self-closing, self-latching gate; some states require at least 5 feet.  
Pool alarms and door alarms are also protection products that may have some benefits. Note, however, that swimming lessons are not enough to prevent drowning; swimming lessons in wet clothes and shoes could be suggested for children with ASD who tend to wander.The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends a family supervision plan for children with ASD and other special needs. Have a checklist of nearby ponds, lakes and pools to search if a child wanders. Download an emergency plan here. To find swim lessons, contact your local parks and recreation facility or YMCA. Many communities have free or low-cost programs. Swim programs are tailored to meet cultural, religious, physical and mental health needs. Local faith-based organizations also can offer suggestions on swim accommodations that meet your family’s beliefs and traditions.Each state also has an affliate organization of Family Voices, a national family-led organization of families of children and youth with special health care needs. They are another resource for finding swim lessons to accomodate your child’s needs. 

Worried about Wandering?

Talk with your child’s pediatrician about creating a family wandering emergency plan. The diagnostic code for wandering is Z91.83, which can be used in your visits with medical professionals. Your pediatrician can give you additional strategies that may be helpful in increasing your child’s safety, as well as information about local resources.

Editor’s note: Wandering behavior isn’t unique to children with ASD. A variety of different developmental disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can also lead to children running off at any given moment. In addition, children with ASD may have other medical problems that may need further evaluation and treatment. These may include seizures, problems with sleep, gastrointestinal problems (feeding problems, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and behavioral health problems (such as anxiety, ADHD, irritability, and aggression).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *