A new study suggests that a third (33 percent) of school-age children with autism wander, or bolt, from adult supervision in any given year.
The researchers also looked at wandering in a broader group of schoolchildren with autism or intellectual disability or developmental delay. Just over a quarter (26 percent) of this larger group had strayed from safety in the previous 12 months.
Published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, the study is the first to estimate the prevalence of wandering in a nationwide sample of school-age children with developmental disabilities.
“As the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the United States continues to rise, there is a need to better understand the behaviors that may compromise the safety and well-being of these children,” says lead researcher Bridget Kiely, of the Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York.
“Not only does [wandering] pose a significant risk to the safety and well-being of children with developmental disabilities,” adds senior researcher Andrew Adesman, “but fear of wandering can be a daily source of stress and anxiety for parents of affected children.” Dr. Adesman is chief of developmental pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center.
Supporting concerns raised by autism community
The new report bolsters the concerns raised by a 2012 survey of families with children affected by autism. That earlier study – by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) – found that nearly half of children with autism had wandered from safety at some point in their young lives.
Importantly, the IAN researchers found that autism-related wandering did not stem from inattentive parenting – as wandering in these families was rare among siblings not affected by autism.
“These findings underscore how important it is to give families and caregivers greater access to tools and resources that will help them develop a comprehensive safety plan to prevent wandering,” comments Autism Speaks’ Lindsay Naeder. Naeder directs the organization’s Family Services Autism Response Team. In the last year, Naeder and her colleagues have partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Project Lifesaver International to provide safety training and resources to more than 10,000 people with autism and their families and more than 11,000 first responders.
Diving into the CDC’s Pathways Survey
In the new study, the researchers analyzed information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Pathways Survey. It includes nationwide information from parents and guardians of more than 4,000 children with special health-care needs, ages 6 to 17.
The researchers compared wandering information on:
* Children affected by just autism,
* Children affected by both autism and intellectual disability or developmental delay, and
* Children who had intellectual disability and/or developmental delay but not autism.
They found the highest rates of wandering among the children with autism – regardless of whether they had associated intellectual disability or developmental delays. A third of the children with autism (33 percent) had wandered within the last 12 months.
By comparison, just over a fifth (22 percent) of the children affected by intellectual disability or developmental delay – but not autism – had wandered in the last year.
Across all the groups, parents reported that wandering children tended to lack awareness of dangers, to have difficulty distinguishing strangers from people they knew, and to panic when encountering unfamiliar situations or changes in their routines.
“A multi-faceted approach to wandering prevention and response is best to prevent wandering,” Autism Speaks’ Naeder emphasizes. “This needs to include both families and local first responders working together on an ongoing basis.”
To learn more about Autism Speaks’ wandering-related safety initiatives, also see:
* Preventing Wandering: Resources for Parents and First Responders
* Autism Speaks awards grant to Project Lifesaver
* Autism Speaks and NCMEC provide autism safety training to the NYPD
For more on the Pathway Survey as a resource for the autism community, see
“Autism Speaks & Child Health Data Resource Center launch public portal.”