Key Findings: Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder More Likely to Wander than Children in Other Study Groups

Little girl holding hand with adult

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were significantly more likely to wander than children in other study groups. The findings provide important information for caregivers and providers on the occurrence of wandering among children with and without ASD and associated conditions (such as anxiety and attention problems), which may place children at increased risk for wandering from safe environments. Read the scientific summaryexternal icon of the article.

Main Findings

  • Among children with confirmed ASD in this study, more than half, or about 60%, were reported to wander;
  • Among children with a previous but unconfirmed ASD diagnosis, about 41% were reported to wander;
  • Among children with other developmental disabilities, about 22% were reported to wander; and
  • Among children in the general population, about 13% percent were reported to wander.

Additionally, mood, anxiety, attention, and oppositional problems, as well as a very low developmental level were associated with wandering behavior independent of ASD status. These results may facilitate discussions between caregivers and providers about safety, prevention, and interventions that may improve the lives of children who wander and their families.

This study is among the first to compare wandering among children with ASD to children with other developmental disabilities and children in the general population and to identify a range of child factors associated with wandering.

About This Study

This study used data from the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED), the largest study in the United States to help identify factors that may put children at risk for ASD. Using information gathered from questionnaires completed by mothers in 2007—2016, this paper reports on how often wandering occurred among approximately 4,000 children (4 and 5 years of age) in four groups: children with confirmed ASD, children with a previous but unconfirmed ASD diagnosis, children with other developmental disabilities, and children in the general population.

What Is Wandering?

Wandering, or leaving a supervised space or the care of a responsible person, is a behavior that is common among toddlers who are exploring their environment and learning to be independent; it typically becomes much less common after 4 years of age. However, wandering may be more common among children with ASD and other developmental disabilities and could compromise child safety and increase caregiver stress.

Our Work

CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities is working to improve our understanding of ASD through the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network and SEED. CDC conducts and funds these activities to

  • Learn more about the number of people who have ASD; and
  • Identify factors that may put children at risk for ASD and other DDs.

This information can help communities direct outreach efforts to those who need it most.

For more information, visit https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism.

Key Findings Reference

Wiggins LD, DiGuiseppi C, Schieve L, Moody E, Soke G, Giarelli E, Levy S. Wandering among Preschool Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. 2019 [epub ahead of print].