And he’s not alone - it’s common to hear words like escape artist and runner used to describe autistic kids. This need to run off, seek out or explore other places is called wandering and recent data suggests it’s much more common than previously realized.
If you have a kid who wanders, you’d probably agree that we need to come up with a better name for it. ‘Wandering’ implies a kind of casual or slow drifting off course, which doesn’t at all describe the speed and determination with which these kids can disappear, and gives the false impression that they’re merely confused or lost. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
Autistic wandering (also called elopement) is an intense desire to seek out another place, usually without regard for personal safety.
Keeping tabs on a kid who needs to wander is extremely challenging. Many of them are skilled at waiting for the precise moment when backs are turned before making their dash, and can be gone in mere seconds. They can be adept at opening even locked doors, so protecting them can turn a house into a fortress. It also makes venturing outside the home extremely stressful, and many kinds of outings are simply impossible.
Autistic kids in particular are at enormous risk if they manage to leave unsupervised. Some are drawn to dangers such as water and traffic, and communication difficulties can make it hard for them to know when or who to ask for help. Search efforts are complicated by the fact that many don’t respond to their names, and sensory overload from lights or sirens can stop them from coming back to safety.
So it’s not surprising that families report wandering to be one of the most stressful of all autistic behaviours. The worry over how to keep your kids safe from dangers such as traffic, drowning, exposure to the elements or predatory strangers takes its toll on mental and physical health, and the need for constant vigilance is exhausting.
What is surprising (and incredibly disappointing) is that this common autistic behaviour, that can be so traumatic and have such potentially dangerous outcomes, is not well supported or understood by researchers and health professionals. In a recent survey, very few parents were able to report that they had received information or advice about wandering from their paediatrician or psychologist.
So we don't yet know exactly why wandering is so common in autism, but let's take a look at some of the possible reasons.
An underdeveloped sense of danger
One of the things that usually keeps kids from running off is that it’s scary to be away from their parents. Danger awareness can be difficult for autistic kids, so the thought that something bad might happen to them or they’ll get lost if they run away may not immediately (or ever) enter their mind. Likewise, if they don’t perceive speeding cars to be a threat then it’s not scary to step out in front of one.
This also makes it difficult for them to identify safety. One of the definitions of wandering is ‘voluntarily leaving a safe place’... but this makes the assumption that we all share the same understanding of what and where safe is.
Many of the boundaries that we set between safe and unsafe, okay and not okay, are not very obvious. We say things like ‘stay here’... but where is that exactly? Rules that we think are explicit can be interpreted differently by a literal mind. ‘You can’t go outside’ (Oh but I can mum, see! I just slide the door open!)
Some autistic kids are visual thinkers but boundaries are not always visually clear. At school there is often no fence marking the school perimeter, instead the students are given verbal rules about which areas they’re allowed to play in. The playground or park may be long expanses of grass, and the beach just goes on forever.
Kids with sensory issues sometimes find it difficult to move between physical spaces (moving off the footpath to the grass), so boundaries are created where none actually exist. Instead of following the rest of the group across the grass to the picnic area, they may continue along the path and be long gone on the other side of the car park before anyone notices.
Kids who don't have access to communication can’t always let you know when they really want to go find that fence with the cool hexagons on it, or that the flickering of the fluorescent light in the supermarket is bugging the crap out of them. So exploring or escaping are alternate ways of getting to the thing they want (or away from the thing they don't).
Kids with overly sensitive sensory systems have difficult filtering out input, and sensory overload is common and distressing for them. So it’s not surprising that sometimes they might need to get away from the source of all that input. The trouble is, once the system is in meltdown they’re not able to think through where the chaos is coming from, how to move away from it or any of the various rules about where they’re allowed to go... so they just run. The act of running itself can also be an effective sensory seeking activity for some kids.
A kid who’s completely absorbed in the sound that his shoes are making on the gravel isn’t going to notice that he’s walked a mile from home... or hear the car horns or people yelling his name for that matter. So it can be just as much of a shock for him when he finally sticks his head up and realizes that he’s not on his driveway anymore.
A kid who lives and breathes trains may stop at nothing to feed that fascination - including running off to the train crossing or trying to get home to watch Thomas the Tank Engine. And kids who are in a confusing or stressful situation may want to escape to the safe world of their obsessions - to run to the playground where they’re allowed to take their shoes off or home to play matchbox cars.
How can you help?
- Use multiple layers of protection - wandering cannot be solved with supervision alone
- Make boundaries explicit - show them exactly where they can and can’t go
- Be mindful of the potential for literal interpretation of the rules - Try phrases like "You are not allowed" instead of "You can’t"
- Teach danger awareness - use social stories to explain why they can’t go out of bounds, what safe means, which places are safe and the dangers with being away from safe places
- Role play what to do if they find themselves alone
- Give them a map of the school with safe areas and boundaries clearly marked
- Teach them to swim
- Use visual boundary markers - put stop signs on the doors at home or mark boundary lines on the floor of the classroom
- Make your surroundings safe - fence the yard and swimming pool, and ask neighbours to do the same
- Talk to the school - make sure they understand the potential seriousness of the problem and have strategies in place to ensure safety (and make sure these are included in any IEP)
- Provide respites from sensory overload - let them retreat to the bedroom when people visit, use headphones at the supermarket, set up a quiet corner in the classroom
- Investigate the possibility of getting a service dog
- Provide opportunities for them to run safely at regular intervals during the day
- Assign a person to supervise the child 1:1 at large gatherings or social events
- Buy a GPS tracking device
- Tell neighbours to let you know if they see your child outside, and train them on how best to approach or intervene
- Consider some form of ID like a medic alert bracelet or temporary tattoo
- Keep a current photo handy - take a quick snap of what they're wearing each morning
- Meet with local police to explain the risk, likely places your child will escape to and how they should respond
- Train yourself in first aid, swimming and lifesaving
- Never become complacent to the possible risks, even if your child hasn't yet shown any interest in wandering
... and the number one best thing you can do to help protect an autistic child who wanders is to check out this website:
It's an excellent resource, and they have loads of important information and tips.
Image from Flickr user Today is a good day
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