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Coping with the Wandering Problem for Kids with Disabilities

Aiden was 3 years old when the autistic boy left school, unnoticed, and made his way onto a busy street.

When Katie Johnson (whose name has been changed at her request) arrived to pick up her son from school that day, the Little Elm mom was met by Aiden’s teacher who explained that he had escaped but was found by the school staff, unharmed.

“I had stressed in every ARD meeting to please watch him and that he was both inquisitive and quick and would wander off,” Johnson explains. “[Him wandering] was my worst fear.”

Unfortunately, Aiden’s wandering away from a safe environment has become a pervasive problem for kids with disabilities.

In a study published in the science and medical journal PLOS One earlier this year, researchers found that more than 26 percent of kids ages 6 to 17 with autism, intellectual disabilities or developmental delays wandered away from a safe place in the last year.

In fact, just last month, an autistic teen visiting from Killeen made headlines when he wandered away from the Valley Creek Park area in Mesquite. Luckily, he was discovered in a homeless shelter in Dallas a day later.

What causes these kids to elope (the technical term for wandering)?

For lots of kids, it has to do with fascinations like the enjoyment they get from running and exploring or getting to a place that attracts them such as the pond down the road or the brightly colored road sign across the street. For others, bolting happens to escape a stressful situation (a place with loud noises, for instance).

Priya Patel, program director at the nonprofit It’s a Sensory World! in Farmers Branch, a center that offers multi-sensory, therapeutic, recreational and educational services to children with special needs and their families, works with children who are prone to fleeing. She says there are many reasons a child tries to leave. “But those causes are often avoidance, a sensory issue, curiosity or overstimulation,” she says.

And these kids don’t just slip away from schools or day care. They wander away from home, sometimes in the middle of the night, forcing parents to barricade doors or take shifts staying awake.

The scariest part is that many of these children have communication, social and attention challenges, may not be able to answer basic questions (like saying their name) and are less likely than others to recognize signs of danger (busy streets, freeways and water). In fact, a staggering 91 percent of wandering cases that result in death in children with autism ages 14 and younger are attributed to drowning.

So what can parents do? Figure out what causes your child’s need or desire to wander and mitigate those situations.

Stress and overstimulation make 8-year-old Payton, who was born with difficulties due to prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol (she’s adopted) and presents symptoms of trauma disorder, run from her Richardson home. Her mom, Angela Stephens, who co-founded It’s a Sensory World! says the first step parents can take in preventing wandering is to identify triggers.

For Payton, holiday gatherings and family functions with lots of people can overwhelm. Stephens says that understanding the cause of Payton’s elopement issue has been key is setting up systems to keep her daughter safe.

There’s typically a pattern with kids who are prone to wander.

“Most of the time, the child will give off a warning cue before they bolt,” Patel explains. “This can be something subtle — a sound or a look — but identifying [signs] can help the parent or caregiver to move into a proactive position.”

Obviously, prevention is the objective, and experts advise securing doors, windows and fences with deadbolt locks, even alarm systems that beep when the door, window or fence is opened. They also suggest informing neighbors and school workers about a child who might be prone to dart off and teaching — and practicing — commands like, “Stop!” with kids with autism, intellectual disabilities or developmental delays.

Unfortunately, under federal criteria, the Amber Alert can only be used for children confirmed by law enforcement to have been abducted. Wandering doesn’t count. And in Texas, a Silver Alert is only issued for missing persons 65 and older.

So in the instances where kids do escape, Patel says that it’s important to know where they might go because they often run to places they’re knowingly drawn to.

“If you know where they are likely to go, you can have people begin searching there,” she says. “And you can take steps to lower the risk of danger with these places.” Like teaching a child to swim or to look both ways before crossing the street, for instance.

Some parents outfit their wandering-prone children with a removable GPS tracking device (see below) so they can be found more easily.

The National Autism Association (NAA) offers a free, printable Family Wandering Emergency Plan that includes details about the child, where they are apt to wander and assigns friends and family members places to immediately check in an emergency. Patel says this is a necessary tool for parents of wanderers.

Fort Worth public information officer Tamara Valle says a plan and a recent picture are key to locating a missing child.

“Rather than trying to remember these things when you’re stressed, [parents should] have them ready to go,” Valle advises.

Many times, as children get older, the wandering behavior improves, especially with behavioral therapy, according to Jessica Naert, who works with teens and adults with autism as a transition vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services in Denton.

“With enough support, planning and collaborative therapy, I have found that many of my students can safely live in the community and even have some level of independence,” she explains.