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Is your child in danger of wandering off?

Is your child in danger of wandering off?

The thought of a child wandering off can be terrifying for a parent, and new research suggests that concern can be especially troubling when it comes to children with autism.

In a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly half of parents surveyed said their child with autism attempted to wander off intentionally at least once when they were over the age of 4. About 65% of those those children were in danger of being harmed by traffic, and a quarter of them were in danger of drowning.

Children with autism are at a much higher risk of wandering because communication and sensory issues can leave them uncertain of how to handle situations, recognize boundaries, ask for help or identify safe spaces. Causes of wandering may be:

  1. Goal-directed: The child is trying to get to a place they really like (the zoo, store, an ice cream place.)
  2. Bolting: The child is reacting to something upsetting (they weren’t allowed to have the iPad, their brother is crying, etc.) They may feel overwhelmed by a crowded space, too much noise or too much information to process.
  3. Boredom or confusion: The child may not understand the current expectations of them. Also, children with autism often have trouble sleeping, which can lead to being awake and bored or having nightmares and not knowing how to handle them.

These instances can end tragically. That’s why we created a safety program to systematically work with parents using a three-pronged approach.

  • Prevention: This involves educating parents, schools, first responders and other community members and providing resources.
  • Skill acquisition: We teach children safety skills through modeling and encouraging practice with us and at home so these skills can be generalized to other settings like the community, school, vacation, etc.
  • Problem reduction: If a child is exhibiting behaviors that may increase chances of wandering, we want to address that. For example, if a child is impulsive and has trouble waiting, we work on teaching them to wait and/or ask before leaving one place to go to another.

We teach children about personal space, safe boundaries, recognizing community helpers and asking for help when they are lost. We recommend that all children have ID tags that can be used regardless of a child’s language skills and discuss stranger danger, good touch vs. bad touch, street safety, pool safety and more. We recommend children of all abilities take swimming lessons.

We help parents recognize triggers that might contribute to their child’s unsafe behaviors and discuss developing a safety plan using checklists and toolkits to make the process easier.

If you live in Illinois or Wisconsin and your child is a patient of Advocate Aurora Health, speak with their pediatrician about collaborating with the Pediatric Developmental Center. You can also access online toolkits to help develop a safety plan through Autism Speaks and the National Autism Association.

Dr. Jennifer Palmer, Veronica Padilla and Sharon Solomon are clinicians at Advocate Children’s Hospital. Dr. Palmer is a psychologist, Veronica is a behavior therapist and Sharon is a licensed clinical social worker.

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Dr. Jennifer Palmer, Veronica Padilla and Sharon Solomon

Dr. Jennifer Palmer, Veronica Padilla and Sharon Solomon are clinicians at Advocate Children's Hospital. Dr. Palmer is a psychologist, Veronica is a behavior therapist and Sharon is a licensed clinical social worker.