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What is Wandering?

Wandering in Special Needs ChildrenWandering (also called eloping, bolting or running) occurs when a person, who requires some level of supervision to be safe, leaves a supervised, safe space and/or the care of a responsible person and is exposed to potential dangers.

While most frequently seen in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and Alzheimer’s, wandering behavior can occur with numerous other diagnoses, including Down syndrome, intellectual disability, anxiety and ADHD.

Why Wander?

Contrary to the name, wandering (which implies a slow, unfocused movement) can happen quickly and with specific goals. There are three main types of wandering:

  • Goal-Directed: Wandering with the purpose of getting somewhere or obtaining something (water, train tracks, park, an item of obsession, etc.).
  • Bolting/Fleeing: Quickly departing with the intent to escape something (anxiety, uncomfortable or undesirable situation, stress, demand or sensory input).
  • Other: Cases where the individual wanders due to confusion, disorientation, boredom or simply becomes lost.

Dangers of Wandering

Children who wander may be subjected to a number of dangers, including:

  • Accidental drowning
  • Traffic accidents
  • Exposure to environment (heat stroke, dehydration, hypothermia)
  • Falling from a high place
  • Contact with predatory strangers

In addition to the dangers they may encounter, a high percentage of children who wander are unable to reliably provide their name, parents' names or address when recovered by first responders. This can make it harder to reunite children with their families and cause additional stress to the lost child.

Where Are The Parents?

The one thing that parents of wanderers would tell you if they could is that wandering not only puts an enormous amount of stress on the caregiver, it significantly disrupts family dynamics and even caregiver health.

In a 2012 study, 56% of parents cited wandering as the single most stressful behavior associated with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. 43% reported that wandering had prevented family members from getting a good night's sleep and 62% reported that wandering concerns prevented their families from enjoying activities outside the home.

Perhaps the most disturbing statistic from the study is that 50% of caregivers reported that they have never been given any professional guidance on wandering.

The parents of wanderers want you to know that they are there. They love and guard their children and make incredible sacrifices to do so. But they are also exhausted, stressed and desperately in need of resources.

You can help. If you are a parent or caregiver, read through our tips to put a S.T.O.P. to wandering. If you are part of the community, you can learn more about wandering and what to do to help bring wanderers safely home.

Image Credit: Chrisroll, FreeDigitalImages.net

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