Autism and wandering
Many autistic children and teenagers wander or run off, even when adults are supervising them.
Autistic children wander for many reasons. For example, they might want to:
- avoid something in their environment, like noise
- go to a favourite place, like the park or train station
- avoid something they’re scared of, like dogs or balloons
- seek out a sensory stimulus, like water
- feel in control
- be chased.
Sometimes autistic children wander aimlessly. Other times they want to get somewhere in particular, or they bolt suddenly to get away from something.
If your child is ever in immediate or life-threatening danger, call 000 straight away.
Understanding why autistic children and teenagers wander
When you understand why your autistic child wanders, it can help you work out the best way to manage the wandering.
You can do this by looking at what seems to trigger your child’s wandering and what your child gets out of it. Then you might be able to change or manage the wandering by changing either the triggers or what your child gets out of it.
For example, your child is sensitive to noise and light and often tries to run off when you’re at the supermarket together. In this situation, the trigger for wandering seems to be too much noise and light. Running off is your child’s way of reducing the discomfort the noise and light causes.
You might be able to manage this by not taking your child to the supermarket, going at a quieter time, or praising your child when they stay with you.
Therapies and supports based on an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) approach can help with your child’s wandering. ABA uses specialised, structured techniques to teach children new behaviour and skills.
Making it harder for autistic children and teenagers to wander
Here are simple, practical things you can do around your home and in your family to make it harder for children to wander:
- Use security gates and fences around your yard and garden.
- Supervise your child in and around your home.
- Use an alarm on doorways and other entry and exit points.
- Teach your child to hold your hand and walk beside you when you’re out together.
- Use a tracking app.
Safety for autistic children and teenagers who wander
These tips can help to keep your autistic child safe if they do wander off.
Teach your child safety skills
If your child knows some safety skills, it can help them avoid danger. You could use social stories to teach your child about car and road safety, stranger danger, fire safety and water safety. If your child has a fascination with water, it’s a good idea to teach your child to swim, as well as when it’s OK to be in the water.
Dress your child in bright clothes
If you dress your child in bright, distinctive clothing when you go out, it will help you and other people spot your child if your child wanders off.
Use an identification necklace
Your child could wear an identification necklace or bracelet that has your contact details and a statement that your child is autistic. If they wander or get lost, people will then know who to call.
Ask for community help
If your child has certain places they’re likely to go to – for example, the local train station – you could introduce yourself and your child to the station staff. You could ask the staff to watch for your child and call you if they see them.
Talk to your child’s school
As part of preparing for your child starting primary school or moving on to secondary school, you can meet with school staff to talk about your child’s needs. As part of this, you can let the school staff know about your child’s wandering and ways to manage it. You could talk about how they plan to keep your child safe, both at school and on school excursions and camps.
Talk to local police
If you have a local police station, it’s good to introduce the police officers to your child, or to visit the station and give the officers details of your child and your contact information. You could let them know about your child’s wandering, where your child is likely to go, and why.
You could also tell the police about your child’s developmental level and social skills. For example, will your child be afraid if a police officer approaches them? Will they understand what the officer is saying? This can be particularly important for autistic teenagers, because it can sometimes look as though they’re being uncooperative on purpose.
Emergency plans for autistic children and teenagers who wander
If your autistic child is prone to wandering, it’s a good idea to have an emergency plan. The plan should include:
- your child’s name, photo and description
- places your child might go to
- dangerous places to check first – for example, your pool or the local train station
- information about how your child might react to people they don’t know or to being lost
- contact details for the local police, your neighbours, and any places your child might go – for example, the train station
- your contact information.
Share your emergency plan with carers, friends, neighbours, family, your child’s school and the local police. You can also help people get to know your child, so that they’re more likely to act – and know what to do – if they find your child unsupervised.
Getting professional help for wandering
An experienced professional can help you understand and manage your child’s behaviour. This might be particularly helpful if you’ve already tried other strategies to manage wandering, but these haven’t worked. A good first step is talking with your GP, paediatrician or psychologist, your child’s other health professionals, or school support staff.