Autism and Wandering Behavior: Tips for Schools and Professionals

The CDC estimates that 1 in 68 children have been identified with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Even more staggering is that approximately half of all children with autism engage in wandering behavior according to a research project completed by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN). Many of the children that wander are not able to communicate their basic needs to a person that finds them, including their name. I’m sure you have heard the horror stories of fatalities involving children with autism wandering away. This is a real life everyday fear for parents. As we head back to school for the year, it is important for professionals to be prepared to educate their staff and prepare the environment of the building and grounds for prevention.

An everyday fear for families

My own daughter does not have autism, but does have special needs. She is a wanderer, or as we warn people, a “runner”. She makes attempts to run on a daily basis. I stay in shape just keeping up with her. We should probably be wearing running shoes 24/7. She’s had scary success on a few occasions where she has made it to a street before we’ve caught her. Needless to say, wandering is an issue near and dear to my heart.

Parents of a wandering child with autism are incredibly vigilant. Just as we do in my household, they use fences, locks, and even baby gates until the little darlings outsmart them. Personally, we use a security system, partially so that the alarm will go off if there is a night time wandering attempt. We particularly like that the doors chime anytime they are opened, alerting us to a potential escape. There are GPS and tracking devices that some families may choose to use. Many of these do require a fee. Schools and professionals need to understand this very real fear and the level of attention required. If a parent mentions that their child is a wanderer or a runner, take it very seriously and put steps into place immediately for prevention. If the parent does not mention it, it is perfectly acceptable to ask, “Due to the high rate of wandering in students with autism, we feel it best to ask if your child has a history of wandering?” Even if there is no history, you should still be prepared for any situation that may occur.

Prevention for the Wandering Child with Autism

If your child is on an IEP, you should highly consider adding the risk of wandering under safety information.

It is imperative that any substitute and paraprofessional staff are aware of the student’s potential to wander. They, also, need to know what to do if a situation does occur.

Be sure that any staff who may come into contact with the student be introduced to him or her. This may include office staff, paraprofessionals, and anyone else who may need to know. For a known wanderer, you may want to consider making sure all staff have a picture of the student and the student’s name. Staff would then be on alert if they see the student without a staff member. Staff should also be taught how to approach the student.

If the student is a known wanderer, then, they will need supervision at all times around the school setting. Do not send a child known to run or wander to the office or down the hall to another room without an adult. You don’t have to keep them from these activities, but know that they will need supervision.

Consider visual prompts such as a stop sign. This should go without saying, but the student will need to be taught what this means. Social stories may, also, be very helpful. Your speech and language pathologist may be a great resource in this area.

If the student uses a tracking device, ask parents for the number and site information. Keep this in an easy to reference location. Office staff and the child’s teacher should be aware and have access to the number.

Ask the student’s parents if there are any triggers for the wandering or running behavior.

Environmental Considerations

Barriers are needed for any unsafe area, particularly for any water that may be nearby. Few schools have them, but if there is a pool, then locks on the doors and fences are a necessity. If there is water nearby, (i.e. a pond, river, etc.), consider a fence or some type of protection to keep a student from entering. Students with autism are much less likely to perceive danger, yet, for unknown reasons, appear to be drawn to water. Parents- swim lessons are a must, but are not a guarantee for a child’s safety.

Consider some type of alarm or something that makes noise on windows and doors exiting the classroom. If your budget is an issue, you can always hang a bell on the door. It may be annoying at first, but it will alert you if a student tries to leave the room.

My daughter is still quite young, but in her case, the school used baby gates for her classroom door last year. This way, they could still keep the door open, but did not have to worry about her running down the hall.

When walking around the building, and especially outside, this is the student that needs a personal escort. You don’t have to make a scene of it. Just be certain that an adult walks next to or right behind them.

In the school building where I had worked for the last five years, our office and paraprofessional staff had walkie talkies. This allowed them to communicate immediately in the case of an emergency.

What to do if a child with autism does wander

This holds true for any child with special needs. If the student is missing from your school or facility, call 911, or your own area’s emergency number. Give the operator the student’s diagnosis and let them know that the student does not sense danger. Also tell them what the student was wearing. If water sources are nearby, have them check those first.

Alert any staff that are able to search (i.e. office staff, paraprofessionals, safety officers, etc.)

If the student has a tracking device, enter the number in the site to pinpoint where they are. Alert first responders and anyone searching for the student if you are able to pinpoint the location.

If the running or wandering behavior is occurring regularly, the school should consider completing a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) to determine if a trigger can be attributed to the behavior. A FBA assists teams in determining the function or the “why” of the behavior. You can then begin to develop a behavior intervention plan (BIP) in order to prevent the behavior from occurring.

Document any incident and inform the parent or guardian.

How to respond to the child who has wandered

Just to complicate things, every child with autism is different. If there is an adult available that knows the child well, and has a good relationship with them, then they should be the key individual to approach the child. If not, the following are generalized instructions in how to respond to autism and wandering behavior:

  • Avoid touching the student unless you absolutely must for their safety (i.e. to prevent them from running into the street). If you do need to touch the student, give them a warning if at all possible.
  • Avoid yelling or using loud noises, unless, as stated before, it is absolutely necessary for their safety. The majority of individuals with an autism spectrum disorder have sensory issues. Be mindful of this as you approach them.
  • Anxiety is also a prevalent concern in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder. Keep in mind that the student may have wandered away due to something anxiety provoking. Your actions should be calming. No fast movements and use a calm voice.
  • Use simple directions with minimal words. This is not the time for lengthy reprimands or reasoning. Simple directions such as “Johnny, stop,” or “Johnny, come here” should suffice. You can repeat this same direction, but keep your voice calm and words brief.
  • Don’t expect an immediate response to any questions. They may need extended time to respond. The student may not respond at all if non-verbal or may repeat what you say (this is called echolalia).
  • The student may engage in self-stimulating behavior (i.e. hand flapping or rocking). This is in an effort to calm themselves. Do not attempt to stop the behavior at this time. Allow them to return to a safe place with trusted individuals.

The IBCCES highly encourages staff at the school and all first responders to obtain their autism certificate. The autism certificate ensures that individuals have knowledge of autism and remain current by obtaining additional training every two years in autism. With the number of individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at 1 in 68, it is critical that staff have knowledge and updated understanding of autism.

Note: Some of the information for this article was taken from the AWAARE collaboration, others from my personal experiences with autism and wandering behavior. I encourage you to check out the site at http://awaare.nationalautismassociation.org/ for additional information. Please feel free to share your comments and/or additional suggestions. I always appreciate your input.

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