Autism and Wandering
Wandering among children and teenagers with autism is common even when they are under supervision. For instance, they may wander off in places like malls, supermarkets, and any public spaces. Wandering is dangerous for children as children may be harmed or injured when they wander off. This behaviour can also be very stressful for families. This article shares some tips to help you develop a safety plan to prevent your child from wandering.
Why does my child wander off?
There are various reasons why children with autism may wander. Children with greater autism severity tend to be at increased risk of wandering off. Many children with autism who wander off cannot communicate their name, address, or phone number. By understanding the reasons your child may wander off, it can help you with choosing strategies that are suitable and also develop better safety plans. To understand why they wander off, you can analyse this behaviour by thinking about the
1. Antecedents: What are the “triggers” of the wandering behaviour? Some of the “triggers” of the wandering behaviour include:
Getting something or going somewhere of interest. Places such as their favourite playground may be somewhere they have wandered off. Or they may wander off to seek sensory stimuli, such as from water.
Escaping/Avoiding current environment. Your child’s current environment may be uncomfortable or overwhelming for them, and hence they want to escape from it. They may escape to avoid sensory stimuli such as a noisy place. They may also feel anxious at school and want to escape from there.
To get attention. Some children may wander off to get chased by their parents and to gain their attention.
2. Behaviours: What are your child’s responses to the trigger?
Does your child bolt away and wander off aimlessly?
3. Consequences: In what ways is wandering reinforcing for your child?
Removing oneself from an uncomfortable situation or going to a place of interest can be rewarding and motivating for your child, hence reinforcing their wandering behaviours.
When attention (e.g. retrieving and/or reprimanding) is given to them when children wander off, it reinforces your child’s behaviour.
To address your child’s wandering, we can either change the triggers of the wandering behaviour or the rewards your child gets from wandering. For example, if your child dislikes loud noises and may escape the noisy place, an option will be to find a quieter space that your child can go to or wear noise-cancelling headphones. By understanding why your child may wander off, you can choose suitable strategies to prevent wandering.
Tips to prevent wandering
Secure your home by installing locks, a home security alarm system, and alarms on doors.
Locating devices such as tracking devices/apps and GPS tracking systems can help you quickly identify your child’s whereabouts.
An identification bracelet/tag that contains information such as your child's name and diagnosis and your telephone number is crucial for children who cannot communicate this information to others.
Teach your child safety skills to avoid danger, such as teaching your child how to swim. Additionally, social stories can be created and used to teach them how to stay safe and the potential dangers of being outside.
Provide extra supervision when in public places. Caregivers should pay close attention to their child when outside and when playing close to bodies of water.
Teach your child to ask for his or her wants. If your child wants to get something or get away from the current environment, teach your child to ask for what he or she wants.
Have an emergency plan. Share this plan with caregivers, neighbours, your child’s school, and the police so that they know what to do when they notice that your child is unsupervised. The plan should include details such as
your child’s name, photo, and diagnosis;
places your child might go to;
dangerous places to check first – for example, nearby water bodies;
information about how your child might react to people he does not know or to being lost; and
your contact information.
Do seek professional help to understand and find ways to manage your child’s wandering despite having tried the various strategies and were not successful.
Written by Sylvia.
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