Autistic Children: The Growing Concerns of Wandering and Drowning

3-9-11-photoDrowning is a significant problem behavior of autistic children who are prone to wander away from their caregiver in a safe environment. Unfortunately, many incidences of autistic children wandering away end in tragedy. Much like the wandering behavior of the elderly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, autistic children who wander often placed themselves in potential danger, causing serious injury or harm.

Nearly half of all children with autism will wander at some point in their young life. The occurrences are so common that wandering by autistic children is often referred to as “bolting” or “eloping.” This might involve wandering away from care taking adults in their community or at school. Autistic children might unexpectedly leave the classroom without the teacher’s permission, or leave the home when family members are distracted.

Because autistic children are challenged with communication and social skills, they can easily become a victim of dangerous situations including potential drowning. A variety of factors will often trigger wandering in an autistic child. Many times, the child will tend to wander when there is a desire to go to a specific place, but they are incapable of communicating their wishes to a guardian or parent. This is often the result of the child feeling stressed or anxious in his or her current environment.

Wandering Avoidance Program

The role of a guardian of an autistic child is crucial to minimize the potential of wandering. Anytime a child with the condition wanders away, they are placed in grave danger because they will usually not react to others that are out searching for them.

Global initiatives including the AWAARE (Autism Wandering Awareness Alert Response and Education) Collaboration have developed wandering-avoidance programs to aid the autistic child and their family. This often includes adding preventative measures like the installation of an advanced home security system, as well as extensive training for caregivers.

Another positive measure to increase safety involves teaching the autistic child how to swim at an early age. Wandering children with autism are usually attracted to water, and if left unattended, their decisions can often end in catastrophe.

Important Facts to Know

The important factors listed below are essential for any caretaker or family member in charge of an autistic child. They include:

• At least 50 percent of all families with autistic children have never received guidance or advice from a professional on how to handle wandering
• Almost 50 percent of all autistic children will wander at some point
• Wandering behavior happens across every situation of adult supervision
• The risk potential of wandering and drowning rise with autism severity
• At least 90 percent of all autistic children who die at a young age were a victim of accidental drowning

In addition to drowning, wandering autistic children can suffer a variety of potential dangers including hypothermia, dehydration, exposure, traffic injuries, physical restraint, falls, involvement with law enforcement, and dangerous encounters with strangers.

Caregiver Neglect

Caregivers are often hired by the state, school or other agency to assist the autistic child when away from home. Other times, the child is looked after by a babysitter, day care center, healthcare provider, therapist, or while being transported to and from school. Many properly trained caregivers have been taught to remain alert of the autistic child’s propensity to wander, or be distracted, or lost. Even with training, any time caregivers fail to properly supervise or monitor children with autism, they can be held liable for their negligence.

A legal civil case involving autistic children often includes special considerations for the family dynamics and the damages involved. The child’s family can file a personal injury claim, or a wrongful death lawsuit, to seek financial recompense for the injuries or death of the child, caused by the negligence of a caregiver.

The damages for financial recompense are often measured by a variety of non-economic factors including painful suffering, emotional distress, grief and others. In many incidences, multiple parties can be held accountable when an autistic child is allowed to wander and ends up drowning or becoming injured.