You give your autistic child a specific direction, like telling them to keep their hands on the shopping cart while at the grocery store. You check your list and select a product. When you turn back, your child is gone. Why do autistic children wander?
If your child is prone to wandering off, read on to find out why and what to do about it.
Why autistic children wander
All kids wander when they’re bored or curious about something, but autistic children wander more.
Stressing you out as the parent is not the goal. Autistic children don’t wander away from you with malicious intent. It’s frustrating, but it’s not something we can often control.
We didn’t see the danger
Wandering is less a conscious act and more an unconscious one. Autistic people don’t have the same sense of danger as non-autistic people do. By the time we realize a situation might be dangerous, we’re knee-deep in a man-made pond full dirt, tadpoles and who knows what else.
Something caught our eye
Reversible sequins, mirrors, sparkly objects, special interests — when something catches an autistic person’s eye, they can’t resist stopping to look. Sometimes, it means going back to look at that object. Other times, it’s not any of those things — just the fact that it looked interesting.
There’s this old saying that cats are autistic and dogs have ADHD. It’s not completely off base.
If an autistic person feels unsafe or scared, they might respond by fleeing the situation like a frightened cat. Sensory overload will also cause unsafe/scared feelings, and the default response is often to avoid or exit the situation.
The smaller the autistic person, the faster the escape.
Couple this with the fact that many autistic people have trauma due to ABA and an ostracizing social hierarchy, and you have an extreme flight risk on your hands.
How to prevent autistic child from wandering
Safety is the most important thing for you and your child, so here is how you can prevent your autistic child from wandering off.
1. Child harness and leash
Putting a child in a harness and leash is a controversial topic. When my mom put my brother with ADHD on a leash at six, my 12-year-old self asked her if I could also be on one. She rejected the idea, but it’s stuck with me.
In crowds, autistic teens and adults usually hold hands or grab onto the backpack or pocket of their friends. Our friends are usually accepting, because they know we get lost easily.
A leash doesn’t have to be permanent; it just needs to work until you teach your child not to wander off — at least not without telling you first.
2. Teach wandering boundaries
If your autistic child is old enough to go off by their own, have them tell you first. Before that, create a designated meetup location. Consider giving them a walkie talkie or cell phone so you two can stay in touch and meet up sooner if necessary.
If your wandering autistic child is not old enough to go off by themselves, compromise. You two will go look at ____ after this aisle. Keep that compromise; do not make fake compromises just to pacify the situation in hopes your child will forget. They might forget now, but they will remember later and realize that mommy/daddy/etc. lied.
3. Teach your autistic child what to do in case they get lost.
If your autistic child wandered off, or just forgot to follow you, they are considered lost. Your solution might be calling them over the intercom, but there is too much sensory input for them to hear that.
In stores, teach them to find someone with a vest. Make it a game to point out the employees, so your child understands who the workers — helpers — are. Before going into the store, describe what your child is wearing and have them describe what you are wearing.
Teach your child your first and last name (not just Mom/Dad/etc.). Practice at home.
I once had to find a mom in a red shirt for a child who didn’t know his mom’s name — just that she was wearing a red shirt and her nickname that sounded like I forgot/butterscotch. We found her coming into the store ten minutes later.
Employees will be able to reunite you with your child more quickly if they know the following about you:
- Your name
- What you’re wearing today
- Your hair color
- Your height
- How to ask for a Spanish speaker (or other language)
- The color of your skin (we don’t ask this, but do include it if it is not like your child’s)
Consider making and giving them a laminated business card or plastic-encased card that has all your information to hand over when they’re lost. Anything you can do and accommodate will help employees or other adults much better.
4. What to do if you lose your kid
Instead of calling for their name, call for what they’re wearing. The time it takes you to find an employee could be just the time someone needs to leave with your child. Code Adams (missing child) are not announced over the intercom. Only a limited number of employees from each department are permitted to look for the children.
If you make a big commotion while looking for your child, you’ll have other people looking for your kid and employees will come to you.
Start shouting what your child was wearing. For example, say, “Has anyone seen a boy/girl wearing a [color + description] shirt and [color/description] pants?!”
If you teach your autistic child what to do if they’re lost or taken, both of you have a greater chance as being reunited straight away.
More Resources for Autism