People with autism "wander" for many reasons. Mainly, a person with autism will wander to either get to something or away from something. Like dementia, persons with autism gravitate towards items of interest. This could be anything from a road sign they once saw to a neighbor’s pool to a merry-go-round in the park. Other times, they may want to escape an environment if certain sounds or other sensory input becomes bothersome. Outdoor gatherings present an especially large problem because it is assumed that there are more eyes on the child or adult with autism. However, heavy distractions coupled with an over-stimulating setting can lead to a child or adult wandering off without notice. School settings are also an issue, especially those that have un-fenced or un-gated playgrounds. A new, unfamiliar, or unsecured environment, such as a unfamiliar campsite, may also trigger wandering, as well as episodes of distress, meltdowns, or times when a child or adult with autism has certain fears or anxiety.
In 2008, Danish researchers found that the mortality rate among the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) population is twice as high as the general population. In 2001, a California research team found that elevated death rates among those with ASD were in large part attributed to drowning. Drowning often occurs as a result of wandering off. Drowning, along with prolonged exposure and other factors, remain among the top causes of death within the autism population. Although there is no known data that recognizes whether deaths associated with wandering are on the rise within the autism population, anecdotal reports suggest an increase.
There are various reasons someone with ASD may wander. Many parents report their child gravitates towards water, so nearby lakes, ponds and creeks may continue to be a desired destination. Someone with ASD is likely aware when attention has shifted away from them and will take the opportunity to slip out quickly in order to reach a desired area or item of interest.
Scout Unit gatherings or other events may give a false impression of “all eyes on” someone with ASD. However, heavy distractions can present opportunities to leave unnoticed. Visiting relatives or episodes of distress also may increase the risk for wandering. This also holds true in warmer months when persons with ASD are more likely to play outside or attend summer or day camps.
There are many safety precautions you can take to prevent wandering, but teaching a scout to swim is critical for their safety. Swimming lessons for children with special needs are available at many YMCA locations. The final lesson should be with clothes on. NOTE: Teaching a scout how to swim DOES NOT mean he is safe in water. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend swimming classes as the primary means of drowning prevention. Constant, careful supervision and barriers such as pool fencing are necessary even when children have completed swimming classes. Scouts and Scout leaders are encouraged to seek training in swimming, lifesaving, first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Discuss with the parents any concerns you may have about a Scout with ASD and wandering. Make extra-sure to be sure all dangerous areas in as campsite are as secure as they can be. Electronic devices can also be used that are designed to help assist parents of autistic children who wander. Have a copy of an "Autism Elopement Alert Form" that has person specific data for the autistic scout. This can greatly help first responders in the case of a lost Scout with ASD. (Click here to download an "Autism Elopement Alert Form)