Autism and Wandering: How ABA can Help Keep Kids Safe

06/12/2015 12:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016
Sarah Kupferschmidt

In October 2013, a 14-year-old boy by the name of Avonte Oquendo wandered away from his class and out of his school. The security cameras outside of his school captured him darting across the street until he was no longer visible. This is the last footage ever seen of him alive. After he had been missing for months, his mom was contacted by the police, who let her know that they had found his remains. This is a parents' worst nightmare.

There are hundreds of cases of children with autism going missing because they have wandered or bolted in the media. In a study published in the Journal of Paediatrics in 2012, it was found that 49% of children with autism have wandered from a safe situation at least one time. Many of the children in the study also had close calls with traffic injuries and drowning. Avonte walked out of his school, but it is even more common that children with autism are wandering out from the safety of his/her own home. I recently heard about a mom that was moving the sofa every night so that it blocked her front door. This is where she needed to sleep because if her son tried to leave in the middle of the night, which he had on multiple occasions, he would need to climb up and over her body. This way she would wake up and be able to keep him home and safe. Parents who are living with a child with autism often face social, emotional and financial challenges, and many of the parents who are living with a child with autism who wanders or bolts report that the wandering or bolting, is the most significant challenge for them. Furthermore, many of them report that they feel powerless on what to do about it. They do not know how to go about keeping their child safe!

Clinically proven treatments like those that are based on Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) are effective at improving the quality of life for children with autism and his/her family. A treatment that could help a child with autism who wanders or bolts that is based on ABA would involve determining why the child is wandering. Different children wander for different reasons. Are they bolting to get access to something that they want (e.g., the park) or are they wandering to get away from something that they find terribly uncomfortable (e.g., a loud noise). Figuring out the why is a necessary part in developing an effective intervention. What I would do to help a family that has a child with autism who wanders to get something is very different from what I would do to help them if the child was doing it to get away from something. A Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) has a set of tools that allow them to identify why the wandering or bolting is happening.

Then an intervention is selected that suits the unique strengths, areas of need and preferences of the child that wanders or bolts. The overall goal would be to empower a child with autism with skills that they can use to fulfil his/her needs instead of resorting to wandering or bolting. A treatment that is based on ABA would involve teaching the child with autism a better way to get that need met, that keeps them safe and considers their unique skills, and learning style. Finally, a necessary component to any treatment that is based on ABA is to track progress. Demonstrating whether or not the intervention is effective ensures that we are maximizing the child's learning potential and time.

There is an urgent need to support families who are dealing with a child with autism who wanders or bolts. Government agencies and insurance companies are spending billions of dollars on treatment that is based on ABA for children with autism because they know that it works. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, there continues to be huge waitlists and many families cannot afford it as they wait for services. In order to make ABA more affordable and accessible, we need to continue to inspire students to pursue graduate work in ABA and ensure that there are enough academic institutions available to support the demand. Secondly, we need to leverage advances in technology to develop options that are more affordable and allow more families to access them because they are available anywhere, anytime. Finally, this is a call out to my fellow colleagues and other Behavior Analysts, traditionally we have done a poor job of marketing or disseminating the power that ABA can have in improving the quality of life for children with autism and their families. We need to do a better job of letting people know that ABA is a solution worth considering!

Parents should be able to go to sleep at night in their own bed and sleep, waking up feeling rested because they know that their child stayed safe in the middle of the night. Parents should be able to send their child to school every day and expect that they will be coming home to them safely at the end of the day. Parents who have a child with autism who wanders or bolts need affordable access to ABA.