Autism & Wandering

Wandering- sometimes called elopement – is a serious problem faced by many families raising an individual with autism. Studies have shown that approximately half of individuals with autism will engage in wandering behaviors. Wandering is something that everyone who lives with, cares for or works with children or adults with autism needs to be aware of. Wandering-related factors, including drowning and prolonged exposure to outdoor conditions remain among the top causes of death for those with autism.

Our chapter president, Kim Mack Rosenberg, has twice testified before the New York City council on this issue. You can read her testimony HERE and HERE.

What is wandering?

Wandering is when an individual tries to leave a safe situation – home, a classroom/school, or caregiver when out in the community. Because many people with autism face significant challenges with social and communication skills and safety awareness, wandering is a potentially dangerous – and even deadly – behavior.

Why does a person with autism wander?

It is difficult to generalize because there are many reasons a person with autism may wander. Often a person with autism will wander either to escape a situation, especially a situation they find overly challenging or overly stimulating. Conversely, a person may leave safety to try to get to something he or she desires, especially things on which they may perseverate, as many people with autism do. Importantly, many people with autism are drawn to trains and water, both of which present serious dangers.

Wandering Prevention

The most effective thing that can be done is to stop the wanderer before he or she leaves a safe environment. While we may never be able to eradicate wandering entirely, we can and should take measures to train professionals and parents to minimize chances of wandering. Vigilance and increased awareness may not be enough, a person intent on wandering may be quite resourceful. This is why, for example, some alarm systems in schools and homes (such as audible door and window alarms) may be helpful.

If a Person Wanders

Time is of the essence when a person with autism wanders. Because of this, ways to alert law enforcement and others of a missing vulnerable person in a timely manner is critical. For example, creating a registry, supporting the use of GPS tracking devices, amending the alert system to include additional vulnerable persons, calling for the means to make tracking devices available to families regardless of means all are valuable ways to help prevent wandering-related tragedies and return individuals with autism to their loved ones.


NAA NY Metro’s national parent organization has for the last several years taken a leading role in bringing awareness and education on the issue of wandering on a nationwide level. Among its initiatives is a program called AWAARE – Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education. At the AWAARE website you can find valuable tools about wandering prevention and ways to increase chances that a person with autism who does wander is found safe. There is information for both parents and professionals.