Autism & Wandering
Skip to main content

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. 

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.

Read about the Prevention of Drowning from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

By the Numbers

952 children with autism were reported missing
Just under half of children with autism reported missing to NCMEC were recovered within one day of going missing and 74% were recovered within one week.
43 missing children with autism were recovered deceased and the majority of the time 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.

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 special needs children. Additionally, NCMEC provides guidance on implementing sound practices when dealing with cases involving children with special needs.

 

 

Additional Resources & Model Programs

For Law Enforcement

photo place holder black

Project Lifesaver is a 501 (C)(3) community based, public safety, non-profit organization that provides law enforcement, fire/rescue, and caregivers with a program designed to protect, and when necessary, quickly locate individuals with cognitive disorders who are prone to the life-threatening behavior of wandering. The necessity of this program was determined through the correlation between cognitive conditions and the act of wandering.  

photo place holder black

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 through education, outreach, follow-up, empowerment, and response. 

photo place holder black

Law Enforcement Autism Awareness Patch: Show your community that your officers are trained in special protocols required for incidents involving children and adults on the autism spectrum.

photo place holder black

Addison Police Department First Responder Game: This is an amazing event for first responders to build relationships with special needs community and their families. At the end of the game they host a touch-a-truck event with pizza and ice cream.

photo place holder black

Autism Speaks is dedicated to promoting solutions, across the spectrum and throughout the life span, for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. They do this through advocacy and support; increasing understanding and acceptance of people with autism; and advancing research into causes and better interventions for autism spectrum disorder and related conditions.

photo place holder black

National Autism Association: The mission of the National Autism Association is to respond to the most urgent needs of the autism community, providing real help and hope so that all affected can reach their full potential.

For Families

designed image thumbnail

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

designed image thumbnail

Letter for Neighbors: Help neighbors better understand how to keep your child with autism safe with this form letter.

designed image thumbnail

Safety Products like "alert me bands" and ID cards can help keep your child safer. 

Did you know that 1 out of 59 children have Autism? You probably know someone with Autism. But you might not know that half of children with Autism wander away from safe places including homes and schools in your neighborhood.

To help raise awareness and save lives of children with autism, the Palm Beach County School District Police Department produced a roll-call video to distribute to law-enforcement agencies across the country. Watch "Autism: Points Of Light For First Responders"