Why do children with Autism Wander?
by April Choulat
A new study found that 49% of children with autism wander/elope from safe settings and 62% of families with children who elope were prevented from attending/enjoying activities outside the home due to fear of wandering. Half of parents of children who elope report they were never given advice about elopement from professionals. (Pediatrics, October 2012)
Why do children with autism wander? One of the hallmarks of autism is a limited ability to self-regulate using social referencing. Social referencing develops in very young children and is one way that babies and toddlers learn to process the environment. When presented with uncertainty or potential danger, the toddler can look to mom or dad to gain more information and decide what to do next. This is a cognitive process and depends on the ability to recognize uncertainty and process nonverbal communication from the parent. The vast majority of children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome do not use social referencing (or if they do, very rarely or in a rudimentary way).
A famous experiment of social referencing was done by Joseph Campos, and is shown here:
How can we prevent wandering? In addition to normal precautions such as door and window locks and alarms, fencing and tracking devices (which some children need), it IS possible to teach children with autism how to self-regulate via the parent-child relationship.
The RDI Program offers parents a systematic curriculum which aims to restore the emotional feedback communication system between the child with autism and his or her parent. Not only is this ability to use social referencing necessary for safety reasons, but it is also a critical foundation to real-world success in managing stress and adapting to change as well as making and keeping friends (the real kind that don’t require prompting in highly structured therapeutic settings).
Another component to wandering, which may be more of a challenge with some children than others, is the issue of perception of danger. A child who has very poor body organization and awareness of space may have a limited ability to accurately perceive and process danger. Children who often climb to the highest point or who bump into walls and people may fit into this category. In these cases parents can learn ways to support their child’s recognition of danger and increase their sense of wariness. Without wariness a child with autism is prone to wander off from caregivers, not tethered by the invisible thread of emotional connection that social referencing provides.
As a consultant, countless parents I have worked with using the RDI protocol have reported significant improvements in their stress level as a result of their child learning to reference and regulate with them. Everyday activities like going to the grocery store or walking on a sidewalk no longer trigger panic for parents who previously worried about their child’s safety in such situations. It is my hope that one day all parents will know that their autistic child can learn to connect with them on such a foundational level, and perhaps prevent some of the tragic accidents we hear about in the news; accidents that happen all because the child with autism does not experience a sense of wariness and/or disconnection from their primary caregiver.
The above article was originally posted here: http://www.rdiconnect.com/blogs/rdi-culture/archive/2013/02/20/why-do-children-with-autism-wander.aspx
This question was just posted to the Autism Guide Facebook page by a friend
With the recent tragic stories of several more drownings of children with autism who wandered away, I wonder how many parents feel that the RDI program helped their child stop wandering. I know it helped in the case of my son.
And here are some replies
Mine first…as this did help my son and as I work with families I make sure this is a high priority goal if their child wanders!
same here there were many times that Jesse was down the street, especially at night and one time I remember I found him because of his light up sneakers…. the next block over, stimming away in a yard! We dont live far from water….Once we worked on co reg and social referencing, he never wandered again! He is now the kid who goes outside, mows the lawn , bikes, etc. I do think wandering can be helped tremendously by the set of goals in RDI!!!
I hadn’t thought about that. My son had almost graduated from his ABA program before we switched to RDI. At the start he didn’t reference me at all and after a year of RDI he referenced and coordinated himself with me. I wish all kids had access to RDI!
This mom says- I had a runner. Now i have a kid I can send down the street on his bike, knowing that he’ll wait for me safely to cross the road with him. He can go to the shop on his own and buy bananas or milk or whatever. He’s never run away from school.