Discovering that a child with autism has wandered away from the safety of home would be a terrifying moment for any parent.
Now, a new study reports that one-third of children on the autism spectrum engage in wandering behaviors.
“Wandering places children with autism spectrum disorders at risk of serious injury or even death once they are away from adult supervision,” study senior investigator Dr. Andrew Adesman said in a Northwell Health news release. Adesman is chief of developmental pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center (CCMC) of New York.
His team tracked the histories of more than 1,400 children, aged 6 to 17, with autism. The researchers found that more than one-third had wandered from a safe setting within the past 12 months.
Kids who wandered were more likely to be unaware of when they are in danger, and to have trouble distinguishing between strangers and familiar people, the study found. In addition, these kids were also more prone to sudden mood changes, to over-react to situations and people, to get angry quickly, and to panic in new situations or if faced with change, the researchers said.
Wandering was twice as likely to occur when the children were in a public place — for example a mall or street — than from home or school, Adesman’s team found.
Principal investigator Bridget Kiely said in the news release, “As the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the United States continues to rise, there is a need to better understand the behaviors that may compromise the safety and well-being of these children.” Kiely is a research assistant in the division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at CCMC.
There is also an urgent need to find more effective ways to prevent children with autism from wandering, the researchers said.
The study findings were scheduled to be presented Saturday at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting, in Baltimore.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has more about autism.