Wandering & Elopement

Why do some autistic people wander, and how can you help keep them safe?

happy little girl running on green summer field

What is wandering?

Also called elopement, wandering is the term given to an intense desire to seek out another place, usually without regard for personal safety. It a big area of concern in autism, with recent data suggesting it’s much more common than previously realized.

Wandering isn’t a great description for this behaviour. It sounds like a kind of casual or slow drifting off course, which doesn’t at all describe the speed and determination with which people who wander can disappear, and gives the false impression that they’re merely confused or lost. While that may be true of conditions like dementia, that’s not what we’re talking about with autism.

Why is it a problem?

Caring for someone who needs to wander is extremely challenging. They can be gone in mere seconds and be adept at opening even locked doors, so protecting them can turn a house into a fortress. It also makes venturing outside the home extremely stressful, and many kinds of outings are simply impossible.

Autistic children in particular are at enormous risk if they manage to leave unsupervised. Some are drawn to dangers such as water and traffic, and communication difficulties can make it hard for them to know when or who to ask for help. Search efforts are complicated by the fact that they may not respond to their name, and sensory overload from lights or sirens can stop them from coming back to safety.

So it’s not surprising that families report wandering to be one of the most stressful of all autistic behaviours. The worry over how to keep your kids safe from dangers such as traffic, drowning, exposure to the elements or predatory strangers takes its toll on mental and physical health, and the need for constant vigilance is exhausting.

What is surprising (and incredibly disappointing) is that this common autistic behaviour, that can be so traumatic and have such potentially dangerous outcomes, is not well supported or understood by researchers and health professionals. In a recent survey, very few parents were able to report that they had received information or advice about wandering from their paediatrician or psychologist.

So we don’t yet know exactly why wandering is so common in autism, but let’s take a look at some of the possible reasons.

Why do some autistic people wander?

An underdeveloped sense of danger

One of the things that usually prevents kids from running away from caregivers is that it’s scary to be away from safety. Danger awareness can be difficult for autistic children, so the thought that something bad might happen to them or they’ll get lost if they run away may not immediately (or ever) enter their mind. Likewise, if they don’t perceive dangers like a speeding car to be a threat then fear won’t keep them from hazardous places or situations.

This also makes it difficult for them to identify safety. One of the definitions of wandering is ‘voluntarily leaving a safe place’, but this makes the assumption that we all share the same understanding of what and where safe is.

Boundary confusion

Many of the lines that we set between safe and unsafe, okay and not okay, are not very obvious. We say things like ‘stay here’ but where is that exactly? Rules that we think are explicit can be interpreted differently by a literal mind. ‘You can’t go outside’ for example (“But I can go outside, see! I just slide the door open!”).

Boundaries are also not always visually clear. At school there is often no fence marking the school perimeter, instead the students are given verbal rules about which areas they’re allowed to play in. The playground or park may be long expanses of grass, and the beach just goes on forever.

People with sensory issues sometimes find it difficult to move between physical spaces (moving off the footpath to the grass), so boundaries are created where none actually exist. Instead of following the rest of the group across the grass to the picnic area, they may continue along the path and be long gone on the other side of the car park before anyone notices.

Communication difficulties

People who don’t have access to communication can’t always let you know when they really want to go find that fence with the cool hexagons on it, or that the flickering of the fluorescent light in the supermarket is hurting their eyes. So exploring or escaping are alternate ways of getting to the thing they want (or away from the thing they don’t).

Hypersensitivities

People with overly sensitive sensory systems have difficult filtering out input, and sensory overload is common and distressing for them. So it’s not surprising that sometimes they might need to get away from the source of all that input.

The trouble is, once the body is in a meltdown state they’re not able to think through where the chaos is coming from, how to move away from it or any of the various rules about where they’re allowed to go. So they just run, and the act of running itself can also be an effective sensory seeking activity in itself.

Tunnel focus

Someone who’s completely absorbed in the sound that their shoes are making on the gravel may not notice that they’ve walked a mile from home, or hear the car horns or people yelling their name. So it can be just as much of a shock for them when they finally stick their head up and realize that they’re not on their driveway anymore.

Special interests

A kid who lives and breathes trains may stop at nothing to feed that fascination – including running off to the train crossing or trying to get home to watch Thomas the Tank Engine. And people who are in a confusing or stressful situation may want to escape to the safe world of their intense interests – to run to the playground where they’re allowed to take their shoes off or home to play matchbox cars.

How can you help?

Keeping someone who wanders safe requires multiple layers of protection, it cannot be solved with supervision alone.

  • Make boundaries explicit – show them exactly where they can and can’t go
  • Be mindful of the potential for literal interpretation of the rules – Try phrases like You are not allowed instead of You can’t
  • Teach danger awareness – use social stories to explain why they can’t go out of bounds, what safe means, which places are safe and the dangers with being away from safe places
  • Role play what to do if they find themselves alone
  • Give them a map of the school with safe areas and boundaries clearly marked
  • Teach them to swim and always, always fence backyard swimming pools
  • Use visual boundary markers – put stop signs on the doors at home or mark boundary lines on the floor of the classroom
  • Talk to the school, make sure they understand the potential seriousness of the problem and have strategies in place to ensure safety (and make sure these are included in any IEP)
  • Provide respites from sensory overload – let them retreat to their bedroom when people visit, use headphones at the supermarket, set up a quiet corner in the classroom
  • Investigate the possibility of getting a service dog
  • Provide opportunities for them to run safely at regular intervals during the day
  • Assign a person to supervise the person 1:1 at large gatherings or social events
  • Investigate whether a GPS tracking device would be helpful
  • Tell neighbours to let you know if they see your child outside, and train them on how best to approach or intervene
  • Consider some form of ID like a medic alert bracelet or temporary tattoo
  • Keep a current photo handy – take a quick snap of what they’re wearing each morning
  • Meet with local police to explain the risk, likely places your child will escape to and how they should respond
  • Train yourself in first aid, swimming and lifesaving
  • Never become complacent to the possible risks, even if your child hasn’t yet shown any interest in wandering

There are more ideas at the AWAARE website: WWW.AWAARE.ORG.  It’s an excellent resource with loads of important information and tips.

Last updated 25 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.