Autism spectrum disorder and wandering

Nearly half of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) try to wander or run off, even when there’s an adult supervising them.

Sometimes children with ASD wander aimlessly. Other times they want to get somewhere in particular, or they bolt suddenly to get away from something.

Children with ASD wander for many reasons. For example, they might want to:

  • avoid something in their environment, like noise
  • go to a favourite place, like the park
  • seek out a sensory stimulus, like water
  • feel in control
  • be chased.
If your child is ever in immediate or life-threatening danger, call 000 straight away.

How to prevent wandering: behaviour approach

Understanding why your child wanders can help you prevent wandering.

You can do this by looking at the wandering as an ABC sandwich:

  • Antecedents: the ‘triggers’ for the wandering
  • Behaviour: the way your child responds to the trigger
  • Consequences or ‘rewards’: what your child gets out of wandering, like leaving a stressful situation, or getting to a favourite place.

You can work on your child’s wandering by changing either the triggers or the rewards your child gets from wandering.

For example, your child loves water and always runs towards pools, rivers or lakes. If you’re going for a walk or picnic, you could check whether there are any large bodies of water near where you’re going and change your route or picnic spot to avoid the water.

Or if you know that your child runs away from noise, you could think about how to make the environment quieter for your child. Another option might be to find a safe, quiet space that your child can go to when things get too much.

Our article on managing challenging behaviour in children with ASD has more detail on how to use the ABC sandwich approach. Also, interventions based on an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) approach can help with your child’s wandering. These interventions use specialised, structured techniques to teach children new behaviour and skills.

Practical tips to prevent wandering

Practical tips for preventing wandering include:

  • putting locks on your doors that your child can’t reach
  • using security gates and fences in your garden
  • using a harness and lead (if you’re comfortable with this) to stop a younger child from running into the road
  • keeping your eye on where your child is, in and around your home.

Keeping a wandering child safe: tips

These tips can help to keep your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) safe if he does wander off.

If your child knows some safety skills, it can help her avoid danger. You could use Social Stories™ to teach your child about car and road safety, stranger danger, fire safety and water safety. If your child has a fascination with water, it’s a good idea to teach your child to swim, as well as when it’s OK to be in the water.

If you dress your child in bright, distinctive clothing when you go out, it will help you and other people spot your child if he wanders off.

Your child could wear an identification tag or bracelet that has your details and a statement that your child has ASD. If she wanders and gets lost, people will know who to call.

It’s a good idea to have an emergency plan. The plan should include:

  • your child’s name, photo and description
  • places your child might go to
  • dangerous places to check first – for example, your pool or the local train station
  • information about how your child might react to people he doesn’t know or to being lost
  • details for the local police, your neighbours, and any places your child might go – for example, the train station
  • your information.

Share your emergency plan with carers, friends, neighbours, family, your child’s school and the local police. You can also help people get to know your child, so that they’re more likely to act – and know what to do – if they find your child unsupervised.

Asking for community help
People in the community, like pool staff or train station staff, usually want to keep children safe, so they’ll probably be happy to help you with your child’s wandering.

For example, if you go to the local pool a lot, you could ask the staff to keep a photo of your child on hand with her name and your phone number.

If your child has an obsession with trains and runs to your local train station, you could arrange a special trip to the train station to meet some of the staff. Explain that your child has ASD, and what this means – for example, he wanders to the station so he can watch the trains. You could also let the staff know whether your child will respond if someone calls out to him, whether he can respond verbally to a question, and so on.

When you go to the train station with your child, say hello to the staff to help them remember you and your child.

Talking to your child’s school
As part of preparing for your child starting primary school or moving on to secondary school, you’ll be working with school staff, teachers, early intervention providers and other support workers or aides to develop a transition plan for your child.

As part of this plan, you and the school staff will look at your child’s wandering behaviour and ways to prevent or manage it. You could discuss your emergency plan with staff and ask them how they’ll keep your child safe, both at school and on school excursions and camps.

Talking to local police
If you have a local police station, it’s good to introduce the police officers to your child, or to visit the station and give the officers a photo of your child. You could let them know about your child’s wandering, where your child is likely to go, and why.

You could also tell the police about your child’s developmental level and social skills. For example, will your child be afraid if a police officer approaches her? Will she understand what the officer is saying? This can be particularly important for teenagers with ASD, because it can sometimes look as though they’re being uncooperative on purpose.

Getting professional help for wandering

A Board Certified Behaviour Analyst® or another experienced professional can help you understand and manage your child’s behaviour. This might be particularly helpful if you’ve already tried other strategies to manage wandering without success.

Looking after yourself, especially your physical and emotional wellbeing, can help you stay calm and consistent when things get tough. Friends and family can be a great source of support, as can other parents.
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