Autism & Wandering: What Cops Need to Know

By Sgt. Stefan Bjes  |   Apr 17, 2020

Recent stats from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that autism rates in children grew 10% from 2016 to 2018, currently standing at 1/54 children. A unique and challenging characteristic of autism is wandering, commonly known as “fleeing,” “bolting” or “eloping” events — similar to what are known as “wandering events” in the Alzheimer’s community.

For reasons not entirely known, roughly half of children with autism will wander from a safe environment, which is of great concern to law enforcement.

As warmer weather approaches the number of wandering events involving individuals with autism are, statistically, likely to increase. This may be due to open doors, open windows, outdoor activities such as family gatherings, and general changes in routines. With many states imposing stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wandering events are also likely to see an increase due to a lack of structure, changes in the routine, and an overwhelming desire for children with autism to leave their house.

Finding and safely recovering a missing child or adult with autism can often pose a unique and difficult challenge for law enforcement. The behaviors and actions of an individual with autism are commonly much different than those of a non-affected child or adult. These behaviors and actions may also differ amongst those diagnosed with autism, as symptoms can range from mild to severe. Generally speaking, no two individuals with autism are alike.

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder which surfaces in three main ways. While behaviors will differ from person to person, these three characteristics are restrictive/repetitive actions or behaviors, difficulty with social interaction, and difficulty in communication. As a result of these characteristics, strategies which are normally used in typical missing person cases may prove ineffective.

In a typical missing person case, the lost individual may seek first responders for assistance, answer to their name, and stay away from dangerous situations. An individual with autism may hide in small, enclosed spaces or even run from the first responders who are searching for them. They may also not respond to their name being called due to their limited verbal ability. Individuals with autism also have an impaired sense of danger, which may place them at significant risk of injury or death.

According to the National Autism Association, accidental drownings accounted for 91% of the total U.S. deaths reported for children with autism ages 14 and younger after wandering/elopement. 68% of these deaths were in a nearby pond, creek, river, or lake. Therefore, first responders must check bodies of water immediately after such an event is reported.

Additional dangers may include traffic, falling from an elevated place, unintended encounters with strangers, and exposure to weather and other elements resulting in heat stroke, hypothermia, or dehydration.

There are various reasons why a person with autism may wander from a safe environment.

One common reason is goal-directed wandering. A person with autism may leave a safe environment in an attempt to locate something of interest. These places may include water, active roadways, train tracks, construction sites, or other places of interest. Upon arrival, it is vital that law enforcement quickly gather information about why the child may have wandered and obtain a list of favorite places. Interviewing parents, caregivers, and others who may know the person well is critical, as law enforcement will be able to glean the person’s activities, behaviors, and interests, both past and present.

Another reason for wandering is to escape an environment that is bothersome due to overwhelming stimuli. Loud noises, bright lights, unfamiliar surroundings, or the activity of others are common motives for many wandering events involving people with autism.

Whatever the reason, it is important to understand that wandering/elopement is a form of communication: “I need,” “I want,” “I don’t want,” or “I don’t like.”

Recommendations for law enforcement response

While cases of missing children and adults with any special need should be treated with the utmost importance and care, cases featuring individuals with severe autism need to be treated as critical events.

Again, because children with autism have an extreme attraction to water, it is strongly recommended that law enforcement and first responders search bodies of water in the immediate area.

There are three important procedures that can be used to improve response time and prevent fatalities during wandering events: obtaining readily-available information about an individual with autism; utilizing technology such as tracking technology or alert systems such as Endangered Missing Advisories; and completing law enforcement training on how to properly interact with a person who has autism.

Law enforcement agencies should also consider implementing a special needs registry. Special needs registries enable law enforcement agencies to obtain critical information before an actual emergency which assists in the response to calls for service involving an individual with special needs. This information proves especially valuable when agencies are called to locate a wandering individual with special needs. Special needs registry information provided to law enforcement could, for example, include a location that holds a special meaning to a missing special needs individual. It could also include insight into which direction they tend to wander, a history of past interests or residences which may shine a light on their behavior, whether or not they are verbal (and able to respond to questions), photographs of the individual, etc.

This type of information can expedite the search for a wandering individual by reducing the amount of information collection necessary after a call for service. It could also provide a basis from which more information can be gathered to further tailor the search. In addition, the information assists officers by preparing them to respectfully and appropriately interact with the individual once they have been located.

Due to the fact that people with autism often experience difficulty communicating, law enforcement and other first responders should be able to quickly and easily utilize alternative forms of communication. Picture Exchange Cards (PECS) or assistive technology through a smart phone or tablet are simple ways communication can be achieved between the two parties. Sensory kits should be incorporated to assist with de-escalation in a sensory overload situation. Many of these items can be obtained for little or no cost, and they should be part of our everyday equipment. A resource that my department utilized for sensory kits was Christopher’s Voice, which is a charitable organization created by Detective Christopher Greco of the New Rochelle Police Department.

There are also various tracking technologies available to law enforcement agencies and the families of people with autism. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to such resources. There are just too many variables between families, departments, and locations to recommend any one product. Families and agencies should research all of the features and costs associated with each option to find the one which fits their particular needs best. A few options to research are Project Lifesaver, Angelsense, and MedicAlert.

Because there have been countless cases in which a child with autism was found by a member of the public, it’s important to review alert guidelines within your state and issue an Endangered Missing Advisory each time a wandering event occurs (Guide for Implementing or Enhancing an Endangered Missing Advisory, n.d.). Social media, reverse 911, and the local media can also assist with locating individuals quickly and safely.

As with any critically-missing child, time is an extremely important factor in a safe recovery. Law enforcement agencies should consider reaching out to organizations such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for additional resources. For example, many such groups have search-and-rescue experts or other specialists who can assist in the search (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children , n.d.).

Upon locating the missing individual, law enforcement officers should do the following:

  • Maintain a calm demeanor and approach the child at their level
  • Contain the child in a passive way to keep them from running once again
  • Avoid restraints
  • Bring the parent or guardian to the scene
  • Use clear, concise commands or communication aids

Law enforcement should always follow up with the individual’s family after a wandering event to gather further information, provide resources, and develop a safety plan.

Law enforcement training programs should be designed to provide officers with a basic understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorders and strategies for interacting with individuals who have autism. This training should also identify the procedures a law enforcement officer should follow to ensure the safety and cooperation of a person with autism.

Wandering tendencies in those with autism can have tragic consequences. Fatal outcomes are preventable with increased awareness, education, and resources. Developing initiatives within law enforcement agencies aimed at increasing awareness and obtaining essential resources could potentially reduce wandering deaths in the population of individuals who have autism.