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Practical Tips for Parents...
By Lori McIlwain, National Autism Association
As we saw with the disappearance of Avonte Oqeundo in early October, wandering and bolting behaviors can happen in any setting, schools included. The 14-year-old student from Queens slipped away during a classroom transition, leading to a massive search that ended tragically last week when Avonte’s remains were found.
While wandering in general affects 49% of children with autism, tragedies associated with school-related wandering are exceptionally rare. This could be because there are typically less immediate threats directly near school campuses, and because there are naturally more people available to search. Either way, the fear of school-related wandering has left many parents in our community struggling with ways to keep their children safe.
How Often Does School-related Wandering Happen?
Based on a 2012 study conducted by the Interactive Autism Community (IAN) through the Kennedy Krieger Institute, 29% of parents reported that their child wandered from a school or classroom. Because there is no mandate that requires schools to report a wandering or bolting incident, we suspect the actual number is much higher.
When Does It Happen?
The larger percentage of school-related incidents happen in fall, winter, and spring. Though numbers decrease during the summer, students who attend year-round schools, have an extended school year, or attend summer camps, remain at risk. As with all wandering incidents, the warmer the weather, the more cases there are. Based on anecdotal feedback from parents, school transitions are a prime trigger for wandering incidents, as well as new school environments.
Why Does It Happen?
According to the IAN study, children with Asperger’s were more frequently described by their parents as anxious; while children with autism were described as happy, playful or exhilarated. In either case, wandering was goal-oriented, with the intent to go somewhere or do something. On the school side in particular, we hear from parents that stress, triggers, and overstimulation are key reasons for their children’s wandering, as well as pursuing favorite things or special topics.
What Can Parents Do To Keep It From Happening? Read more at Autism File Magazine.