About half of children with autism have a tendency to wander, with the behavior most apparent around age 4, according to preliminary results from the first large-scale survey on the issue.

The poll of 856 parents of kids with autism found that most who wander do so when they’re feeling happy or focused. But the reasons children left their environment varied wildly, with some simply exploring or going to a favorite place and others bolting in order to avoid stressful situations.

The results suggest that wandering is a “critical safety issue” in the autism community, says Paul Law, director of the Interactive Autism Network, or IAN, a national autism registry which collected the data. Yet, the survey found that half of parents had received no information from professionals about how to deal with the issue.

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“We hope that advocates and policy makers use this research to implement key safety measures to support these families and keep these children safe,” Law said.

Of kids who wander, about half of parents reported that their child succeeded and went missing long enough to cause serious concern. Moreover, 32 percent said they called in police for help.

In about one in three cases, parents reported that their child who wanders is “never” or “rarely” able to express their name, address or other contact information.

Some in the autism community had suspected that wandering occurred most frequently in summer months, but most surveyed said that the season of the year did not appear to impact the likelihood that their child would bolt.

Researchers say they plan to further analyze the findings in order to learn more about the differences between kids with autism who do and do not wander, what can be done to prevent it and how parents are impacted financially and emotionally.

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