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How to rein in little ones who wander

Are you responsible for toddlers on the autism spectrum who tend to go walkabout?

Autism advocacy body Amaze has published a guide to dealing with ‘wanderers’. These comprise the vast proportion of kids with autism – who stray, or, as the case may be, bolt from supervision.

In the guide, Amaze recommends carers practise positive behaviour support (PBS) to stop little ones from toddling off. This methodology comprises three steps and suggests wandering can be “reduced or eliminated if we know the purpose of [it]”.

Why they wander

Step one, ascertain the purpose. While the authors of the guide conceded that “people on the autism spectrum may wander for a variety of reasons”, they also propose common ones, such as pursuit of an obsession and avoidance of uncomfortable stimuli, like loud noises. To use a real-life example, ‘Harry’ might amble outside because he’s obsessed with collecting twigs.

What to do

Once you’ve pinpointed the purpose, take step two: consider the trigger. For Harry, that might be walking past trees on his way to preschool.

Step three involves “teaching the person new skills to reduce or replace their desire to wander”. That is, remove the urge to act on the trigger. So, in Harry’s case, bring a pile of brushwood into the classroom so he won’t be tempted to gather it from the scrub. In doing this, however, take care to moderate the obsession, as it may “interfere with learning new skills”, indicated Dr Avril Brereton, adjunct senior research fellow in the Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology.

What not to do

Restrictive interventions are a no-no. The guide states there is no evidence to support their efficacy in preventing wandering, “…and such practices may infringe upon a person’s fundamental human rights”. As for why, the guide suggested that, “unlike PBS strategies, restrictive interventions do not support the individual to develop skills that may help to prevent wandering”. So sedatives, physical restraints and isolation tactics do not a wanderer inhibit.

GPS tracking devices have also been posited as a wandering cure, but these, too, have not been proved effective.

If all else fails, collaborate

PBS has proven efficacy, yet stopping children with autism from going rogue is sometimes impossible. In light of this, the guide recommends harnessing community support “…to increase the chances of keeping a person who wanders safe…” Local police, shopkeepers and public service personnel can be informed that a child with autism (Harry, with fistfuls of sticks) may be on the loose, and to be on the lookout for him. Parents, psychologists and other allied health professionals can also be consulted to ensure Harry only goes bush under your watch.

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