When Your Special Needs Child Wanders

Published on in Trisomy 21 Update

Wandering and elopement are terms used to describe a child’s tendency to leave the safety of a caregiver’s supervision or a designated safe area. This includes running off in a public place or leaving the home or classroom unnoticed. Wandering is typical in toddlers, but the behavior may persist to older ages in individuals with Down syndrome, particularly if there is a dual diagnosis of autism.  

Approximately half of children with autism display wandering behavior, which may occur when the child tries to pursue something of interest or escape from something disturbing (like a loud noise or crowd). 

Children who are lost and alone are at greater risk of danger — including drowning, traffic accidents, dehydration or heat stroke, other injuries or encounters with strangers. When wandering results in a lethal outcome, 70 to 90 percent of the time it is due to drowning.

If your child tends to wander — or you imagine they could — you should take steps to safeguard their surroundings. By preparing, you can minimize the risks and consequences to your child.

Safeguard your home 

Install locks on all doors and windows, including, perhaps, an extra lock out of your child’s reach. Install a home security alarm system that signals when any window or exit is opened or closed. Keep a fence with secure gates around your yard. Teach your child the meaning of a STOP sign and place an image of the sign on all commonly used exits. 

Engage your neighbors 

Speak to your trusted neighbors and explain your child’s tendency for wandering. Show them a photo of your child or introduce them if you feel comfortable doing so. Describe your child’s fears and manner of response to interactions, including their meltdown triggers and ways to calm them. Give these neighbors your contact information and be sure they understand the need to call immediately if your child is seen alone. 

Mark key places on a map 

Print a Google map of your neighborhood. Think about places that would be familiar or appealing to your child. Mark off commonly travelled routes, favorite places, parks, and particularly, bodies of water. These are the details that police will need in an emergency — it’s better to have it ready than to scramble to think clearly in a crisis. 

Keep a wandering log

Keep a wandering log to document the date and time of all wandering episodes, including where your child wandered from and with whom, behaviors that were noticed before wandering, where your child was found, and possible reasons for wandering.

By tracking this history, you may recognize a pattern to your child's behavior and take steps to prevent it from recurring. You may also have a better sense of how to respond if an episode does recur.

Prepare documents with important information 

Download a copy of Special Needs Information Page (SNIP) from the National Autism Association. It includes fill-in-the-blanks regarding your child’s personal information, physical characteristics, and medical and behavioral issues. Keep copies in your home, glove compartment, and purse, as well as in your child’s backpack. Offer the SNIP to your neighbors and local emergency responders, either in advance of an emergency or in response to one.  

Complete a family wandering emergency plan

The National Autism Association offers a pre-formatted Family Wandering Emergency Plan that includes step-by-step directions for calling 911 and itemizes the information that will be needed when you call. It also prompts you to pre-arrange point people to be available in the event of an emergency and help with a search.

Practice with your child

If your child is verbal, teach your child to answer questions about contact information.  Practice responding to “What is your name,” “Where do you live,” “What is your phone number?” 

Consider safety products and tracking devices

There are several types of ID tags available specifically for children known to wander, including bracelets, necklaces, clothing labels, shoe tags, and temporary tattoos. Some contain a QR code that stores and allows access to profile information.

GPS and radio-transmitter tracking devices are available in the form of watches, cell phones, and other tags. Some have features that allow map viewing of child’s location, allow you to remotely activate an alarm on the child’s device, 2-way voice (no need to pick up or click anything), “Listen in” text messages announcing departure and arrival times, and alerts when your child is in an unexpected place. Others, like Project Lifesaver, may be directly connected to local law enforcement agencies. 

Enroll your child in swimming lessons

Because children with autism are often attracted to water, drowning has proven to be a substantial risk to those who wander. Please see Water Safety for Your Special Needs Child for detailed safety information to prevent drowning. 

Additional resources

More safety tips