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Wandering Risk High For Kids With Autism, Study Finds

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Children with autism are four times more likely to wander than their typically developing siblings, making the behavior among the most stressful for parents caring for kids with the developmental disorder.

The findings are from a survey of more than 1,200 families of kids with autism published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics. The conclusions largely confirm preliminary results that were first released last year.

Researchers found that 49 percent of children with autism ran off at least once after age 4. About half of those who bolted were gone long enough to be considered “missing.”

In the vast majority of cases, kids left their home or someone else’s and had a specific destination or activity in mind. But the reasons for wandering varied, with kids diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome more likely to be feeling anxious while those with an autism label were often described as happy, playful or exhilarated when they bolted, researchers found.

Regardless of the reason, elopement was stressful and dangerous, parents indicated. Missing children experienced close calls with traffic injuries in 65 percent of cases. And, 24 percent of missing kids found themselves at risk of drowning, the research indicated.

As a result, more than half of parents surveyed said that wandering was among the most stressful behaviors they encounter in caring for a child with autism. Similarly, half of moms and dads said they had no guidance from anyone about how to deal with the issue.

“Parents often fear being viewed as neglectful when their children leave from safe places. This study demonstrates that we urgently need interventions to address elopement and provide support to affected families,” said Paul Law, senior author of the study and director of the Interactive Autism Network, or IAN, a national autism registry at the Kennedy Krieger Institute which collected the data.

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Comments (7 Responses)

  1. vmgillen says:

    DUH! -I said this when I took part in the survey, and say it again… My motivation in participating: the neurodiversity crowd’s inane response (likening it to impristoonment) to efforts to keep these people safe and secure. Duh!

  2. Pam says:

    My brother, who is 57 years old, had has autism all his life – my mother purchased dog tags with his information on them many years ago, before they had items like med alert bracelets (which can be purchased in any drug store). I suggest this as an option to parents – you have to get imaginative!

  3. KA101 says:

    Here’s hoping none of the children involved felt the situations they were leaving were abusive, neglectful, or otherwise places within which remaining was Not Healthy. I realize that the study describes us as displaying positive emotions. Assuming for argument’s sake that the parents’ perception is accurate, those could be a factor of “Wow, new things to explore!”, which is good–or “Yay, I’m away from that sensory-violating, “No”-disrespecting jagoff!”, which is not so good.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I have a 10 year old with autism and he has wandered more than once and we have called 911 to help find him on one occasion. The behavior began before his official diagnosis when he was 2 years old and last occurred when he was 7 years old. The worst time was when he was 6 and I prayed to God that we would find him before the worst could happen. He was found by a friend of a friend standing on the shoulder of a major highway, just on the other side of the wooded area that bordered our house. I am a very vigilant mom, but these kids are very smart and perceptive and know when your attention is divided and take that opportunity to bolt. The only thing that worked for our family to stem the eloping was magnetic alarms. He is terrified of the sound they make so he will not try to get out if he thinks there is a chance that alarm may go off. When he was a toddler we turned his door knob around and locked him in his room at night to keep him safe. Some people thought that was dangerous or cruel, but I don’t care because I have him here with me now, and I might not if we hadn’t done that. I personally think that when child is diagnosed with autism, the professional needs to give the parents or caregivers the information about wandering and how dangerous it is and how to combat it.

  5. Alyssa says:

    File this under one of those stories where the world at large is shocked and anyone who’s ever dealt with someone who has autism just sits there and thinks, “is this supposed to be news”? Yes, these kids wander, for better or for worse this is their “normal”.

    What drives me nuts is when I’ve had to explain to others that if the landlord/city/whomever tries to tell me that I can’t have locks on the door that”ll keep my child safe (by keeping him from getting out of the house without an adult),I’m not worried about fines, legal headaches, etc. As far as I’m concerned, the minute I say that this is what a child with a disability needs, the city/state/etc. is just going to have to deal with it…unless they’d rather deal with a lawyer screaming that THEIR actions constitute child endangerment and/or discrimination!

    Thankfully it’s never come to that, but you’ve got to be prepared to stick up for your kids, no matter what the world thinks. Sorry if this comes across as angry, it just drives me bonkers when pople think that they can evalute what’s dangerous for our kids based on what non-autistic kids need.

  6. annie says:

    Alyssa,

    I got a doctor’s note to avoid those headaches! My son is a night wanderer and we had to take in home security measures to keep him safe. A respite company we worked with said that getting a doctor’s note simply stating that due to your child’s diagnosis he requires: (fill in the blank with any equipment locks etc) can be really helpful. it doesn’t need to be any more specific than that or explain why aside from their diagnosis. My doc was happy to sign, and in the event that some judgmental ignorant person who doesn’t understand the situation calls social services or something, I have a note from his doctor. I don’t know why a doctor’s note is such a valid excuse since they often know so little about these issues, but it satisfies those who would pester your family. Obviously it wouldn’t work in a true abuse situation like tying someone to a bed “for their own safety,” but if you use a special door or a bed tent for example it can be really good to have on hand.

  7. Teresa Rivera-Soto says:

    Please it will be perfect for my son JoseASoto 07/4/01 he was born on crack and herion have him since 3 month and 2 week and adopted him1 1/2 year old he is 12 year old now and is so strong when he get upset he has autism plus Global Development Delay Child–
    ASD/Static Encephalopathy /Obstructive sleep apnea /Adhd/mood disorder/Severe acid reflux with gastric Distention / and mild cerebral Palsy he is in a good school but try he ran out the door when he get upset is very hard for him to forcus and he run out with out looking please im lucky they caught him what happen if he try three time please im so afraid of him getting hit by a truck or bus this will be the best think for autism child a very worry parent .I will keep this in my prayer Our deepest sympathy to the parent

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