Have you ever found yourself on a journey you didn’t plan to take? Maybe you saw something you had to get a closer look at. Maybe the overwhelming urge to run your fingers through the cold, clear water of a stream led you off the well-traveled path and into the untamed brush. I know I have, but I didn’t know that my propensity for wandering was because of an idiosyncrasy of my Aspergian brain.
One of the first studies linking Autism and wandering (or elopement which is the technical term) was conducted in 2012, and it concluded that nearly half of children with Autism may wander away from a safe place (49%). These numbers were reported by the National Autism Association. Wandering is one of the most dangerous Autism traits as it puts the person at risk for environmental related hazards such as drowning, traffic accidents, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, and more. A non-verbal child is at a considerably higher risk of danger because they cannot articulate their name, address, or any helpful information to authority figures.
One example from my own childhood when I was very young (around 5 years old) was the time when I became infatuated with this pond and gully behind my house. It was due to my special interest in nature especially water and stones that I found myself on this adventure out of the house and toward the object of my obsession. The thought never occurred to me to ask my parents’ permission or to see if they would take me. The threat of danger, injury, or worse never crossed my mind. I simply wanted to see the pond, and that was it. My brain became so hyper-focused on the task that I wasn’t even aware of anything else. It is somewhat of a miracle that nothing terrible happened to me on that “adventure” or any of the others I took after that. My parents’ cringe retelling the story of how after I must have gotten to where I was going I ended up walking down one of the busiest roads in town where a man picked me up and drove me home under my directions. The man just happened to be an old co-worker of my dad’s, and I just happened to know my way home, but that could have easily been tragic.
There are news stories almost daily of kids with Autism who aren’t as lucky who end up drowning or being hit by a car after wandering from their homes or their parent’s sides. Why then isn’t this more widely studied or discussed? There is virtually no information regarding wandering in adults with Autism. I decided to do a bit of my own research to try and get some idea if wandering was an early development trait or if it continued into adulthood, and if it affected men and women equally. I sent out a message to those in my adults with Asperger’s group on Facebook to see if any of them remembered wandering as a kid and if they still did it or not. I had three males and two females reply (all of them diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome). Two of the males said they had wandered as kids and continue to do it now, and one said his challenges with directions keeps him from wandering because he knows he will become lost. One female also wandered as a child, and the other reported her friend wanders now as an adult. There were several others who were curious about wandering as they had not associated it with Autism before, but it could explain some of their past experiences.
This was by no means a conclusive study, but it did give some insight into wandering in adulthood. It seems that the trend is that those who wandered as kids continue to do so in adulthood, where those who did still don’t. It doesn’t seem to matter what gender the person is as it is a basic Autism idiosyncrasy. I would like to learn more about this topic as I still find myself drawn to wandering and pursuing interests in a fixated way. I can say from personal experience that I don’t have the complete blindness to my surrounding like I did as a child, but there are times I become so focused on something that I seem to lose time and find myself wondering how I got from point A to point B. It seems that additional research and precautions are necessary to address wandering as even adults face the risk of danger.
The good news is there are several new tools on the market to help parents address wandering with their children as well as ways to be proactive about preventing wandering. One of them is a GPS tracking device from a company called Angel Sense. It is a wearable tracking device that can send updates about where a child is, what routes they are taking to and from locations, notify the parent if their child is late leaving school or a scheduled activity, and send and receive audio from the tracker to the app on the parent’s phone. It basically covers all the bases in making sure a child gets to and from the places they need to go without being left behind or to be found if they begin to wander. It gives the benefit of independence with peace of mind for the family. It is, however, more family appropriate and used with smaller children than adults. For the adults I would suggest a Road ID bracelet. I have one of these, and even though I have never had to use it I find that I have a greater sense of security knowing that if I get into a dangerous situation I would have some form of identification on me that lets first responders know who I am, that I have Autism, and who my contacts are for emergencies. It doesn’t have the GPS capabilities of the Angel Sense device, but there are phone apps that could be used in GPS location was needed for an adult. Besides getting a device to help with the aftermath of an emergency, it would be helpful to make sure there is a system in place before anything happens. You might not be able to predict when you will wander, but make sure someone knows where you will be going and what time to expect you back, keep a phone or identification on you in case someone needs to reach you, and make sure you can communicate your basic information whether it is verbal, written, or through a device. Taking the time to let someone know where you are going can make the difference between someone finding you quickly and not finding you at all. The practice is used by hikers, explorers, and wilderness guides all the time, and it is quite effective.
Wandering can be a great escape for someone with Autism as the motive behind it is often wonder, curiosity, and seeking comfort from an overwhelming situation, but it can be deadly to those who aren’t prepared. Until more research is done to understand the relationship between wandering and Autism, make sure you have a plan in place and a support system to get you back home after your adventure.