According to a 2012 study in the medical journal Pediatrics, at least 49% of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have wandered or bolted from safe settings. The moment you realize you don’t know where a child is can be one of any caregivers’ greatest fears. This fear can be compounded if the child has minimal language, safety skills, and/or social awareness. It is impossible for even the most vigilant caregivers to fully supervise their children 24/7, but you can teach safety skills and put some safeguards in place.
Teach safety skills
The statistics above show that safety skills are critically important. Starting with skills that ensure safety first and foremost should be the priority, especially for children with impulse control issues:
- Staying with caregivers
- Responding to name when called
- Stopping at curbs and waiting
- Holding hands when crossing roads or parking lots
- Learning to request to go to a desired place like the toy aisle.
To help your child learn these skills, frequent praise and reinforcement is critical! Other strategies to help:
- Prime your child with clear and concrete expectations or rules before leaving the car. For example: “We are going to get groceries. We hold hands in the parking lot. Stay with me in the store.”
- Provide these in the form of a visual, too, if it is helpful for your child to process.
- Provide an incentive for following the rules, like a small treat on the way out.
It is also important to know why your child might be attempting to bolt. Some run to go see their favorite toys or snacks in the store, some run to escape loud or stressful environments, and some seem to like the attention or game of being chased around. Teaching communication skills to replace these behaviors is critical in moving forward.
- Prompt a communication response to “leave” or “take a break” from a stressful setting.
- Have your child ask you to use words or visual communication tools to go to a preferred part of the store.
- Provide a ton of fun and silly attention to your child for staying with you.
Providing specific praise and positive attention for the child staying nearby is also very important. If you call them and they stop or they come to you, praise them for listening! If they reach their hand out expectantly or stop at a curb, catch them doing this, too, and praise them! Listen to requests and seek out communication about where they want to go in the store, and that way they can feel as if they have appropriate communication tools to replace wandering off.
These skills should be practiced consistently and in multiple environments. Expectations should be the same across parents and other caregivers (e.g., holding hands when crossing the street with all caregivers). Many IEPs do not contain any safety goals, but if they do, the focus will be on things such as identifying signs. Yet in most cases, knowledge of these signs won’t generalize to functional application in the community unless community-based instruction is provided. Including them in your goals with service providers is also helpful in ensuring more learning opportunities and consistency.
Other ways to ensure safety
Your child will have multiple caregivers in their lives: school staff, services staff, babysitters, extended family, siblings, and neighbors. Although it might seem like common sense, ensure that everyone who might care for your child is explicitly aware of the specific risks of wandering. Talk to them situations that where bolting might occur, and things that you practice to ensure safe transitions, such as holding hands when walking in public or using child locks in cars. Make sure your neighbors also know about your loved one and how to reach you in an emergency.
Technology can provide peace of mind and another layer of protection. In your home, equip all doors, windows, and any other exits with alarms or child locks that can prevent wandering. Alarms or chimes on doors and windows that indicate when a door is open are a cheap and readily accessible option, but security systems can also serve this function. Use child locks in vehicles. Have your child wear medical or other identification bracelets. For those with a higher risk of wandering, GPS tracking devices are also available. More independent adults or teens who might have cell phones can share their locations with others on “find my iPhone” or using Google maps.
Overall, wandering and bolting are one of the most frightening issues a parent can face. There are obviously going to be times where you cannot provide 100% of your attention, so doing what you can to safeguard and account for this is important. Focusing on safety skills that teach your child to stay close to you in the community and encouraging communication are the most practical places to start. Structuring your environment and using technology and other tools to assist you in supervision can provide you with some important peace of mind.
Autism Society of North Carolina’s Staying Safe pag
AWAARE Collaboration on wandering
Matt Alcala, MA, LPA, BCBA, is a member of ASNC’s Clinical Department in the Asheville region and can be reached at email@example.com.
ASNC’s Clinical Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and evidence-based practices in instruction for K-12 students with autism.
To find out more, contact us at 919-390-7242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.