Children on the Autism Spectrum Who Wander Off

“I have pulled my son back from walking into the road numerous times. He is aware of the danger but he shuts off and hyper focus's on his thoughts to block out sensory stuff which makes him oblivious to his surroundings. Also, he will disappear from our fenced in backyard [thru the gate] and wonder down the street on those rare occasions that I go in the house for literally a minute or two. I CANNOT take my eyes off of him for a second! How can one keep this child from wondering off like this? Suggestions?”

Research reveals that about 50% of kids on the autism spectrum run off at least once. Many have been gone long enough to cause parents to report their child missing to authorities, and some have tried to wander off multiple times. The most common places these kids wander from are their homes, schools, or a store. 

There are several reasons why kids on the spectrum wander off (e.g., seeking a place they enjoy, trying to find a place they can go to avoid an uncomfortable situation, impulsivity, feeling stress or sensory overload, anxiety, etc.). It has been suggested that wandering off may be the leading cause of death among these young people. Drowning appears to be the most common among these casualties.

For moms and dads who have a “wandering” youngster on the autism spectrum, here are a few precautions to ensure his or her safety: 

1. DNA registration can be a useful tool for identification. Some companies will store your youngster’s DNA for up to 18 years.

2. Locator technology is another useful tool. There are GPS devices that kids can wear which will help parents locate their lost youngster.  For example, the EmSeeQ locator band is a watch-like device that uses cell phone technology. Other security companies offer a variety of options to help parents keep track of their youngster.

3. Having a youngster on the autism spectrum forces parents to “think out-of-the-box.” Thus, try to understand your youngster’s motivation for wandering off, and then try to find a safer way to meet that desire. For example, many children on the spectrum have a fascination with water. So, if your child has wondered off to the pond near home, then possibly a kiddy pool in the back yard would meet his need to explore water.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

4. Keep your house safeguarded.  For example, set up sensor motion lights around the periphery of your home, set alarms that notify you when someone opens a door or window, and make sure your child’s bedroom is close to yours.

5. Keep a diary of places that your youngster has shown an interest in. Think of specific convenience stores, neighborhood friends’ residences, parks, playgrounds, streams/ponds/lakes, and other places your youngster seems to gravitate to.

6. Use the “stay within my reach” rule. When your child prefers to walk without holding your hand in potentially unsafe zones (e.g.. in a parking lot, at the mall or grocery, on sidewalks, crossing the street, etc.), let him know that’s fine as long as he stays close enough to you such that you can reach out and grab him if needed. Also, let him know that if he violates this rule at any point, you will have to hold his hand for a count of 30, and then try again. This models how to practice self-control, which is a very important concept for children on the autism spectrum. To reinforce compliance with this rule, tap your child on the shoulder every few minutes (if he is being successful with following the rule) and say, “I can still reach you. I appreciate you staying close by my.”

7. Use the “stay within talking distance” rule. When your child prefers to walk without holding your hand in rather safe places (e.g., at the park, on hiking trails, along the beach, down long hallways, etc.), let her know that’s o.k. as long as she stays within vocal range (however, if you have to scream loudly to get her attention, that’s too far!). If she violates this rule at any point, then revert back to the “stay within my reach” rule for a period of 3-5 minutes, then try again.

8. Register the youngster for proper ID through the local police department. Some police departments are set up to receive vital information for kids on the autism spectrum in case they need to refer to it.

9. Advise your neighbors of your child’s wandering tendencies. Tell them to feel free to notify you if they see something or if they see your youngster running away.  Also, tell them not take anything for granted.

10. Advise the school, too. When teachers and other staff interact with your youngster, make sure they emphasize that wandering off is dangerous. In addition, ask your child’s teachers if they would educate him or her on some basic identification facts (e.g., his or her address, the school he or she attends, parent’s cell phone number, etc.).

Have plenty of patience on hand as your youngster learns the importance of not wandering off. No doubt, there will be times when the child with a history of wandering tests the boundaries. In those cases, remind him of the danger, as well as the punishment that will be implemented (e.g., grounding with no privileges).

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's 

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said…  He's 9 and has mostly stopped it. No more wandering, but he does still occasionally worry me with the bolting when he gets very overwhelmed.
•    Anonymous said… All the time!!
•    Anonymous said… As a much younger child, though, he was prone, always, when noise levels went up to just set off running in a random direction; sometimes that turned into climbing if the opportunity arose, and we'd find our three year old on top of an eight-foot stone wall.
•    Anonymous said… even now as a teenager, he'll wonder off if I'm not paying close attention.
•    Anonymous said… Functioning Labels are misleading and rigid. How a person is impacted is a more fluid, accurate representation. A person can slip into different impaction zones (mild/moderate/severe) based on mood, location, or health.
•    Anonymous said… He has stopped, probably after age 7. Wasn't necessarily bolting to, but bolting away from something with no thought of where he was headed. Any type of large group settings (school, summer day camp, Sunday School) until he got comfortable. My older, not diagnosed, son did too with things like fireworks. He bolted for the gate at Disney World when the afternoon fireworks at the castle went off.
•    Anonymous said… In autistic children it's called fight/flight and it's due to their anxiety escalating. When my son runs it can be very dangerous. We never chase him. We follow from a distance and keep him in eyesight.  The best thing to do is to watch for triggers and use calming techniques. For example if our son is adverting eye contact, rocking on his heels swaying back and forth or wringing his hands...these are all signs that he is considering to run. We will start try to decompress by talking in low calming voices. We will also use a weighted blanket. If he's resistant we stop talking altogether and try deep breathing.  If he runs out of our subdivision we call 911. What's important when calling is to identify your child is autistic to the dispatcher. We actually contacted our local sheriff department and they already have a summary profile that pulls up on their computers about our son. It provides them information about him that will help when they are handling him. Seek medical help, there are medications that can help decrease your child's anxiety.
•    Anonymous said… It seemed frequent between ages of 5-7? Not as much now. He's 9.
•    Anonymous said… It was actually a diagnostic question for admission to a specialty Aspergers school: "fight or flight?"
•    Anonymous said… My 5 year old ran out into the road, I was just behind him but a lovely woman tried to stop and help and he thought she was kidnapping him so he's never done it since but his lack of impulse control makes it a risk. Unfortunately that rules him out of school trips unless I can attend to take responsibility.
•    Anonymous said… My almost 9 yr old with recently diagnosed autism level 1, chased leaves into the road, and he also never uses a sidewalk. He is always walking in the grass between the road and sidewalk.
•    Anonymous said… my aspergers son is 15 and he has never done anything like that. I always feel for people who deal with that. The worst he has done is kicked holes in his bedroom wall when he was younger. Extremely stubborn though and the shutdown is hard but luckily nothing crazy.
•    Anonymous said… my child stays exactly where I say to. Thankful I haven't had to exp that and I'm sorry you have. My child acts like an adult who likes to stay put at home.
•    Anonymous said… My HFA Aspergers son who is 11 runs when he is scared, mad, or hears loud noises. It is scary because he just runs with no awareness of his surroundings
•    Anonymous said… my son 7 was just diagnosed aftet 3 yrs. He ran away from school when they were at recess. They caught him before he left the parking lot. At home he says hell run away and i keep an eye on our doors. When we go for walks and stuff he insist on walking in the middle of the road or in peoples yard.
•    Anonymous said… My son did when he was younger, what was worse is he wasn't scared of being hit by a car because he believed he had super powers. We locked the doors and put the key up high
•    Anonymous said… My son has yet to receive a diagnosis (red tape). He has only darted out in front of a car to escape a wasp.
•    Anonymous said… My son is (in)famous for being the first child in 33 years to "escape" from the local community art school at age 6 1/2-7. The class meant his lunch schedule was off, and he was hungry, so he decided, during a moment when the teacher was out of the room gathering materials, he was going to walk home. He walked out of the class, out of the campus gate, and was about 2/3rds of the 2-mile way home--accurately, in spite of several turns--when one of the seven staff members scrambling to look for him caught up. Everyone was terrified because the school was on the edge of a lake; except me. I knew as soon as they contacted me where he was probably going and that he was probably doing just fine, so as long as I didn't let myself imagine something actively sinister, his sense of direction was so impressive I assumed I could just head to my house and wait.
•    Anonymous said… My son is five and he threatens to walk out of school.
•    Anonymous said… My son is only 5 but yes all of the time. I'm constantly aware of what he is doing and ready to grab him because he can disappear very quickly.
•    Anonymous said… my son used to do that, apparently he is not aspergic, but suffers from sensory overload. And my stepson who is still awaiting to be statemented if the council don't lose the paperwork again.
•    Anonymous said… My son was home alone, had a meltdown and ran. I was very fortunate that only a few doors down, he got it together and came back home. I had already called the police and they checked on him. He has also tried to run from school during a meltdown but was talked down by a police officer he knew. He has a special bond with officers since both my husband and I are former officers. The school went berserk and escorted him everywhere last year. We started this year on a clean slate and so far so good.
•    Anonymous said… My son was the resident escape artist at his school when aged 5-8. I repeatedly explained to the teachers that he was a runner and they would have to learn to shut the school gates. That leaving furniture around he could climb was also a big no-no. The message didn't sink in. He found every escape route possible. Open school gates, closed farm gates, 6 foot pool gates, double locked doors (they only placed the door handles 2 foot apart so one hand on each handle and he was out). I would get phone calls to say they had to get in the car to look for him. Having a photographic memory he would run the back roads home whilst they looked for him on the main road. They would find him over 1km from school. Parents passing would find him in the local pony club and report his whereabouts to the school. BUT he did grow out of it and at 11 he is still alive having managed to not get himself run over in the process.
•    Anonymous said… My son who is non verbal autistic is known for his running. We had to fence around our whole house and we don't go anywhere unless know he is secure either with his harness or inside a buggy. We had belts that I wore and he wore that were connected as well. There have been times still that he got away from me. I have horrid nightmares about him getting away and getting hurt.
•    Anonymous said… My would just leave and when the police found her for me she would have no reason as to why she left, she just wanted to leave but would eventually come back.
•    Anonymous said… No but in a public place he will wonder off to be alone.
•    Anonymous said… Terrifyingly,on many occasions, somehow we survived into adulthood, able to drive, catch flights and use public transport although even that is less straightforward than one would like.
•    Anonymous said… That is why he is never unattended. Ever.
•    Anonymous said… that's why we have the Gizmo watch phone now. It allows us to track her. She can call only 4 numbers on the phone. It's been very handy. She feels independent and the wandering off has stopped. Also the best part: when I call: it auto picks up and I can talk and she has to listen.
•    Anonymous said… Twice, law enforcement searched.
•    Anonymous said… When he was little ... All the time
•    Anonymous said… When my son was around 8 he bolted through a pasture full of horses & cows. I was afraid he was gonna get trampled!
•    Anonymous said… every time it was because of anxiety. My son did this a lot when he was younger. He's now 16 and we don't have the issue. We've also worked hard to prepare him for change and limit his anxiety.
•    Anonymous said… Yes and he got sooo grounded. He took off a few times last year he hasnt done it since.
•    Anonymous said… until around 4. Had to have a whole shop shut down once as he managed to unclip himself from the stroller and was found hiding amongst the clothes rails...I died a million times in those minutes.
•    Anonymous said… Yes with fire! Would never learn it was hot
•    Anonymous said… He was a runner when he was 4-5 years old.
•    Anonymous said… No sense of danger. Fear is not an emotion he possesses.
•    Anonymous said… When I was younger because I did not want to be at school. Not anymore.

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