A Parent’s Guide for Wandering and Missing Children

One of Many Nightmares

Wandering is a huge worry for many parents, especially for those of us that have autistic kids. I used to work with kids that wandered or, as it was known at the facility, “eloped”. It was scary to chase a kid down the halls or even outside, because you never know what they might be going after or why they’re running. Great exercise, though. It is also on my list of worries about Julian. He used to run off in parking lots among other places, and was extremely fast. He is still fast but no longer runs off. At almost 12, this is a good thing. I’m not as fast as I was when he was 5, and I’m not sure I can chase him anymore. The peak age is 5 and mainly depends on the severity of autism.

According to the National Autism Association, almost half of autistic kids have engaged in wandering behavior. You can find their website here. That can be a scary number, because most know the 1 in 68 kids statistic. The dangers in this are: encounters with strangers, physical injuries, hypothermia, heat stroke, drowning, etc. This website has a free booklet that can be downloaded that contain tips for safety. (I got it, and it has a lot of helpful information.)

Why Do They Wander?

Kids wander for a variety of reasons. When autism is involved, it’s a bit different.

  1. An undeveloped sense of danger. At my house, this is a top reason for a lot of things, and the main reason why Julian darted through parking lots. I cannot count the times I grabbed his small hands so hard I left marks. It’s harder than most people think to contain a small kid. He still lives what he calls “the dangerous life”. When your kid has autism and ADHD, you pretty much pray for the best.
  2. Boundary confusion. Literal minds don’t always understand instructions, and boundaries aren’t always visually clear. Autistic kids can’t always see the boundaries that they are told to keep. The park can be seen as a big patch of grass, and the beach can be a huge puddle.
  3. Communication issues. Non-verbal or limited verbal kids can’t tell you that the lights are too bright, the room is too noisy or if something else is wrong. They can, however, walk out of the room. They just want to get away.
  4. Special interests. If a kid sees a train, they might want to see it up close. They might even walk out of the house to see it without letting anyone know.


Tips for Wandering

There are ways to help prevent wandering, but most of all: KNOW YOUR KID. If you know your kid and their triggers, this can help you follow the other tips. These tips, in part are from StagesLearning.com

  1. Understand the goal. What is your child’s goal in wandering? Maybe they just like to explore. This is great, but can be done in a safer way. Maybe they want to go to a certain place? This may take time, but can be very important.
  2. Figure out the triggers. Is your child trying to escape a situation? Is the area they are in too loud, too demanding (as in school)? Coping strategies can help.
  3. Tracking and security apps may help.
  4. Teaching safety- pictures, social stories, etc, may be very helpful. Some kids may wander may not be able to communicate in order to get back home. This is a fear with Julian. He is fully verbal but yet will not speak in some situations if he doesn’t know someone. He surprised me one day during a track meet when he got lost. A teacher from another school found him and he gave her my phone number so she could call me, and we were reunited. I was very proud of him.
  5. If wandering at school is an issue, speak to teachers, administrators and anyone else needed about school security to ensure your child’s safety.
  6. Swimming classes may be necessary if you are concerned about your child’s proximity to a pool, creek, pond, river, etc. This can be a life or death situation.

This site Snagglebox has some great tips on preventing wandering. Please look if you need tips or if you know someone that does.

If Your Child Goes Missing

I hope nobody ever has to use these tips. I hope I never do. It is one of my biggest nightmares.

The first step, of course, is to look all over your home. Ask neighbors, nearby family members, etc., if they have seen your child. If not, look around your neighborhood. Have others help if possible.

  1. Call the police. They are required to enter your child into the FBI’s national database right away and send a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) to surrounding areas.
  2. Be ready to give law enforcement your child’s description and picture. – height, weight, hair and eye color. Do they have glasses, other identifying information? Medications? Medical conditions? Date of birth? Other information will be asked for.
  3. Make yourself available, including your phone.
  4. Inform the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) by calling their toll free number 1-800-THE-LOST

Most missing child cases are resolved within hours, according to Safewise


I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts, and according to my kids, it makes me worry too much about them being kidnapped. They have NO idea. Most of the episodes I hear are about missing kids. Stay safe!



Missing Kids – includes downloadables for safety info

National Autism Association

Twin Mummy and Daddy

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

My series with Bonnie is in week three! Broken Wings Part 3: What Your Child Thinks About Your Divorce

If you have missed the first two parts you can catch up: Part 1 Part 2


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