Autism & Wandering
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Overview

According to survey data published in the journal Pediatrics, nearly half of families reported their children with Autism wandered or eloped from safe environments. Finding and safely recovering a missing child with Autism presents unique and difficult challenges for families, law enforcement, first responders and search teams. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has special search protocols and checklists to help first responders.

Children with Autism go missing under a variety of circumstances. They may seek out small or enclosed spaces. They may wander toward places of special interest to them. Or they may try to escape overwhelming stimuli such as sights, sounds, surroundings or activities of others. You can help them become more familiar with these sights and sounds by hosting an Autism-friendly sensory event.

 

Click here if you would like to request training around this issue for your community or law enforcement organization.

Risk Factors

Children with Autism may exhibit interests that pose dangers such as: 

  • Bodies of water
  • Roadways/highways
  • Trains
  • Heavy equipment
  • Fire trucks
  • Roadway signs
  • Bright lights
  • Traffic signals

Download NCMEC's "Autism Wandering Tips" to learn more about risk factors and get helpful information for families of children who may wander.

By the Numbers

In 2019, 354 children on the Autism Spectrum were reported missing to NCMEC. This is a 47% increase from 2018, in which 241 were reported missing to NCMEC.

In 2019, 56% of children on the Autism Spectrum reported missing to NCMEC were recovered within one day of being reported missing, and 77% were recovered within one week.

In a 10-year analysis (2007-2016), NCMEC found that 43 missing children with Autism were recovered deceased (4% of the total). In 72% of the cases, the manner of death was classified as accidental; such as drowning.

What NCMEC is Doing About it

Analyzing the Data to Better Understand the Issue

In ongoing efforts to better understand the unique needs and risks of children with Autism, NCMEC's data analysts compile and study incidents of missing children with Autism when they are reported to NCMEC.

Read NCMEC's latest report on missing children on the Autism Spectrum.

Building Awareness Among Emergency Services and Communities

NCMEC has created resources to assist law enforcement, rescue services, and other community members in hosting Sensory Friendly Events to foster positive relationships with children with Autism. Additionally, NCMEC provides guidance on implementing sound practices when dealing with cases involving children on the Autism Spectrum.

How to Host a Sensory Friendly First Responder Event for Children with Autism 

Investigative Checklist for Law Enforcement When Responding to Missing Children with Special Needs

Missing Children with Special Needs Lost-Person Questionnaire

Resources & Model Programs

For Law Enforcement

Montgomery County Police
Autism/ Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD), Alzheimer’s and Dementia Outreach Unit

This model community outreach program began in 2005, partly in response to the growing number of police calls for service involving missing residents who had autism/IDD, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. The program has continued to develop and today provides a “total approach” to issues that these residents and police face through education, outreach, follow-up, empowerment, and response. 

Law Enforcement Autism Awareness Patch

Show your community that your officers are trained in special protocols required for incidents involving children on the Autism spectrum.

Autism Speaks 

This organization has a variety of resources for law enforcement working with children on the Autism Spectrum. View their first responders' resources here, including a resource guide specifically for law enforcement.

 

National Autism Association

The NAA hosts useful information and downloadable content for families such as "Meet the Police"- a tool to help enhance the quality of interactions between individuals with Autism and members of law enforcement. Similarly, the "Big Red Safety Box" is a toolkit donated to families as a way to educate, raise awareness, and provide simple tools that may assist them in preventing or responding to wandering-related emergencies.

For Families

Key Information

This model script can provide guidance for families on how to effectively communicate with emergency operators in the event of an emergency involving their child with autism.

Letter for Neighbors

Help neighbors better understand how to keep your child with autism safe with this sample letter.

Sports Safety & Inclusive Programs

The Y and The American Red Cross provide swim lessons to children and families. This is important for families to consider in order to ensure water safety and prevent drowning, particularly for families with children on the autism spectrum.

US Youth Soccer TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer) is a community-based training program for all athletes with intellectual, emotional, and or physical disabilities. The program strives to provide inclusive soccer opportunities for players to develop at their own pace in a safe, fun, and supportive environment.

Safety Products 

Products like "Alert Me" bands and ID cards can help keep your child safer by providing first responders and others with awareness that your child is on the autism spectrum.

Community

Ring’s mission is to help make neighborhoods safer. NCMEC missing child posters are featured directly on the Neighbors App by Ring to reach millions of engaged community members who can help bring more children home. 

Click here to read about how Ring's Neighbors App can help when children on the Autism Spectrum go missing.

 

What to do if you encounter a child who you suspect may be on the autism spectrum and appears to be lost.

A roll-call video law enforcement agencies can use with their officers to improve awareness of protocol for handling incidents involving missing children on the autism spectrum.