During summer, the change in usual routines can also lead to increased safety challenges and risky behaviors for some children with autism. Wandering, also called “elopement,” is a common challenge for many children and adults on the spectrum, as well as for their families and caregivers who are trying to keep them safe. Families are understandably frightened when an autistic child wanders off, and it’s often unexpected the first time it happens. Increased access to water activities increases the risks. Fortunately, there are many resources and strategies families can use to help keep their children safe.

  1. Teach clear safety rules. Use clear, direct language like “Ask a grown-up before walking outside” or “Hold hands in the parking lot.” Use visual supports and signs around the home to remind children not to leave. A stop sign printed out and put on the inside of doors leading outside can be surprisingly effective! Praise your child for asking before going outside and reward them by saying yes and going out with them whenever possible.
  2. Use simple safety measures. If your child is prone to wandering at home, considering installing interior locks high on doors leading outside, so that your child cannot open the door. If you have an alarm system, see if you can set it to sound when a door is opened from the inside. Be sure to use child locks on car doors. If your child tends to wander in public, teach rules about holding hands consistently. It’s also a good idea to dress your child in bright colors, so you can easily spot them outdoors or in crowded places. Identification bracelets are also a helpful tool. Soft, rubber bracelets can be purchased easily online and customized with your child’s name, key medical information and contact information. This is a particularly useful tool for children on the spectrum, who may struggle to communicate in stressful situations, even if they often show good language skills in daily circumstances.
  3. Build your safety net. Despite putting safety measures in place, some children persistently manage to wander off. For those children, it’s often helpful to alert neighbors to be on the lookout. Share a photo of your child with your neighbors, along with your contact information and simple instructions for how to approach and speak with your child and keep them safe until you arrive. Contact your local police department and ask if you can register your child with them. Introduce your child to local police officers and teach them how to safely approach an officer to ask for help, either by speaking or by showing an identification bracelet.
  4. Spot the patterns. If your child is prone to persistent wandering or elopement, try to take note of the patterns in your child’s behavior. Do they tend to wander at certain times of day, or in response to particular triggers or events? Where do they tend to go when they wander? When they elope, what helps them to feel safe and calm? If your child works with a behavioral therapist or psychologist, consult their provider for help understanding their behavior patterns and designing a plan to keep them safe. If your child tends to elope at school, work with their school team to implement consistent strategies at home and school to reinforce safety.
  5. Teach water safety. The most common way that children are seriously injured or killed due to wandering is by drowning. Many children with disabilities are drawn to water, and too few have the necessary skills to keep them safe. It is critical for all children to learn water safety skills. Create and reinforce rules about staying away from water unless an adult is present. Ensure gates to pools are locked (but recognize that this is not sufficient to deter a kid) and that toys are removed from the pool. Contact your local recreation department to ask about adapted swimming classes, including programs designed to address the needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. There are also private agencies and swimming instructors in many areas who specialize in swimming instruction for children with disabilities. Other suggestions include the following:
  • Risks are present even when adults are present to supervise. Assign adults to supervise the pool, trading off every 15-30 minutes to help unsure focused supervision.
  • Don’t assume safety in shallow water or because a child has a life jacket on. Adults who are supervising children who are not strong swimmers should ensure the child remains within arm’s length.
  • You Could Save A Child from Drowning This Summer. Here’s How

Elopement and wandering can be an overwhelming challenge. For many children, however, these simple strategies can drastically reduce the behavior and increase their safety. For more tips and resources specific to the autism community, including free toolkits, safety checklists, and emergency profiles, visit the AWAARE Collaboration’s website.

Additional general resources are also available through Project Lifesaver, including information about how to determine if GPS tracking is appropriate for your child.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Allison Ratto Allison Ratto, PhD, is a psychologist in the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National. She specializes in assessment and treatment of ASD and related developmental disorders, particularly in young children and intellectually delayed individuals.
Meagan Wills Meagan Wills, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) at Children's National. She specializes in the diagnostic assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Angela Bollich Angela Bollich, PhD, is a neuropsychologist at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) in the Neuropsychology Department at Children’s National Hospital.
Jessica Smith is a clinical research assistant at Children's National Hospital.

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