Wandering and Autism: What to Do in Three Simple Steps

In my previous two blogs, I addressed what wandering is, its prevalence, and dangers. Now we’ll talk about what to do about wandering/wanderers. If you have any additional suggestions or more questions please join the conversation!

How can we prevent wandering?

First, we need to understand the goals of the individual. Is the person heading for a favorite spot? Do they enjoy exploring their environment?

Second, we need to look for any patterns in the behavior. Does the wandering occur at the same time? Does he/ she wander from the same place? Or to the same place? Does the wandering occur before, during or after a specific activity?

Third, it is important to look for anything that triggers the wandering behavior. Is he/ she becoming overstimulated and needs a break? Is this a routine that begins with a very specific cue. Is he/ she reminded of something enjoyable and then leaves to obtain it?

Once the goals, patterns, and triggers are understood, it is time to create a plan. The components of the plan should include:

  • The removal of the trigger and/or teaching coping strategies for the trigger
  • A behavior interruption, something visual like a stop sign, and/or a communication board that he/she can use to say where he/she wants to go.
  • Specific times scheduled to go to the desired place, and a way to communicate the need to go outside of the scheduled time

In order to teach coping strategies and to communicate use visuals. e.g. red tape, stop signs, or a red stop light on the doors, written and or picture schedules and social narratives

Preventing Environmental Triggers

In the case of fleeing due to fear of a new environment, preparation is the key.

  • Before going to the new place, show pictures, and/or use social narratives to describe what behaviors, sounds, sights, and smells are expected. Getting comfortable with the new place will be a long process, and will need repetition until that comfort is achieved.
  • Visit the new place when it is less likely to be crowded.
  • When explaining what is expected in this new place, make sure to designate a safe place to go for calming.

General Safety Tips

  • Practice sharing his/her name, address, and phone number, and carrying identification to help if he/ she does go missing.
  • If he/she is still in school and has a history of wandering, it should be addressed in the IEP. Ask if unsure of the safety measures in place.
  • Since drowning is a leading cause of death in people with ASD, the ability to swim is an important skill. Enroll in swim classes. In addition to learning an important skill, being in the water is a wonderful sensory experience and can help autistic people regulate.
  • If you own a pool, secure it with strong fencing and locked gates.

Technological Helpers

There are many apps that allow you to track someone using a cellular device. Some use GPS to show you exactly where they are, some store important information to use if he/she goes missing, some can alert you if a door has been opened in your house. Check out your app store to find the one that’s right for you.

Trackers are also available as devices independent from a phone or tablet.

What do we do if someone with autism wanders off?

We hope this helps you feel more confident in creating a safe environment. Feel free to contact us to help you create a plan for your loved one.

Rebecca J. Weaver is a Certified Autism Specialist at Independent with Autism, working to empower individuals with ASD. Need help creating your success strategies? Check out IndependentwithAutism.com for more information.

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