Guest Article: “Wandering and Autism” by Sarah Kupferschmidt, MA, BCBA

There are compelling statistics today that highlight the need to address the issue of our children wandering and going missing.  The safety of chidren with autism is an enormous concern for parents and caregivers alike.  Last month, we shared BCBA Sam Blanco’s interview with Gary Weitzen on safety, wandering, and emergency planning for individuals on the spectrum.  This week, we’re thrilled to bring you a guest article by Sarah Kupferschmidt, MA, BCBA. Sarah has written a wonderfully informative article on how to use the Behavior Skills Training framework to teach your child help-seeking behavior in cases of wandering.
Wandering and Autism
by Sarah Kupferschmidt, MA, BCBA

We seem to be hearing about more and more cases of children with autism wandering and going missing in the media.  In some of these cases the children were reunited safely with their families, but in many unfortunate instances, tragedy ensued.  There is evidence to suggest that this may be more common than most people realize.   The Interactive Autism Network (IAN) and the Kennedy Krieger Institute published a study in 2012, in the Journal of Pediatricson this very topic.  According to the study,  49% of the parents that were interviewed reported that their child with autism had wandered or bolted.  Moreover, more than half of those children that did wander actually went missing.  Compelling numbers aside, what I found even more important about the results of this study was that for obvious reasons parents reported that they were experiencing high levels of stress related to the prospect of their child wandering, but, they were also feeling helpless to a certain extent because they felt that they did not know what they could do about the wandering.

The good news in all of this is that there is hope for those families.  There are ways that we may be able to help prevent children with autism from going missing in the event that they do wander. Behavioral Skills Training (BST), which is a framework based on Applied Behavior Analysis, has been shown to be effective in teaching a variety of different skills to individuals with and/or without a disability.  Specifically, it has been shown to be effective in teaching help-seeking behavior in children with autism (Bergstrom, R., Najdowski, A.C., Tarbox, J., 2012).   This framework involves breaking a complex skill like “seeking help when lost” into its component parts and teaching the child to engage in those behaviors when relevant. For example,   in the article mentioned above, children with autism were taught what to do if they were lost in a store. The help-seeking behavior was broken down into the following steps:
  1. Shout out for the person you are with (e.g., “Mom” or “Dad”)
  2. Look for and walk over to store employee
  3. Tell the employee, “I’m lost”
These steps were taught using the BST framework which includes the following critical elements:
  1. Instructions: Explaining to the child what they should do
  2. Modeling:  Showing the child what they should do
  3. Rehearsal: Practicing with the child
  4. Feedback: Providing feedback to the child on how they did

Each of these steps are fairly self-explanatory.  The instructions step is simply telling the child in words what they should do.  Perhaps you could include some visuals when you are reviewing the steps of what they should do when they get lost.  The next step is showing them how it should be done.  I typically use video models but it is possible to demonstrate it live if you don’t have a recording device.  The next steps are critical in the development of this new skill.  Set up a safe situation with the child where you can go out in the community and practice the three steps.  You could bring the visuals along with you if your child needed that little bit of extra help.  If your child did all three steps correctly it is important to praise them immediately and to let them know what they did well.  If they missed one or more of the steps let them know what they did well and remind them of what they need to do differently next time.  For example, you might say “nice job shouting out for mom or dad, next time, don’t forget to tell the cashier you are lost”.  These steps would be practiced until your child was able to do it fluently.

While the BST framework has evidence to support its use, it is important to remember that every child is unique and has different strengths and weaknesses.  In my experience, the children that would do well in this type of program have certain pre-requisite skills.  Ideally, they would already be able to follow simple instructions, have the ability to imitate, and the ability to identify strangers and familiar people.  While children with autism may be at higher risk for wandering, there are things that we can teach parents/teachers to do to help reduce the risk for compromised safety and/or harm that are grounded in ABA.  If you are worried about your child’s risk for wandering, then I would recommend you contact a local Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) that can assist you in determining if a program such as the one described above would be suitable for you and your child.

About the Author

Sarah Kupferschmidt is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who has worked with hundreds of children with autism and their families across Ontario. She has had the privilege of supervising ABA programs and training clinical staff in those programs.  Currently Sarah offers parent coaching and workshops to teach parents but also educators on the most effective ways to teach children using the principles of ABA.  She is also a part-time faculty member at Mohawk College in the Autism Behavioral Science program, in the social sciences program at McMaster University, and an Adjunct Professor at Sage Graduate School.  Sarah is CEO and co-Founder of Special Appucations Inc., which is a company that creates educational products that help maximize the learning potential for children with autism because they are designed using the principles of ABA.  Sarah has appeared as a guest on CP24, CHCH news, Hamilton Life and the Scott Thompson radio show as an authority on autism.