Autism and Wandering

We don’t often consider autism to be a fatal condition, yet studies have shown the mortality rate among those on the spectrum is nearly twice as high as the general population. Why? It’s a statistic that’s largely attributed to one common tendency – wandering.

A study in the journal Pediatrics found that 49 percent of children with autism have tried to escape from a safe environment, often to get to something of interest like a favorite park or their neighbor’s pool – or to get away from something such as a loud noise or a busy place.

Consequently, accidental drowning, exposure and other wandering-related factors are among the top causes of death for individuals with autism.

Enter technology. In a time when we can track our cellphones, workouts and Amazon packages in real time, there is an ever-growing list of high-tech options to help keep tabs on those who might wander. What technology would work best for your family? Here’s a breakdown:

Global Positioning System (GPS)

Many tracking devices rely on GPS technology, which depends on satellites to provide positioning and navigation information. The device communicates with satellites, figures out the distance to each and then uses that information to deduce its own location.

Pros: GPS isn’t dependent on an outside network and can provide very precise positioning info when an individual is outside, no matter what time of day. GPS also allows parents to set up geofencing to receive notifications if a child leaves a certain area.

Cons: In order for GPS to work, there must be a clear line of sight between the device and the satellites. That means large buildings or thick tree cover can cause issues outside, while tracking inside a building is seldom possible. Like cellphones, GPS units require frequent chargings, and they’re typically not waterproof.

Examples: AngelSense (, EZ100 (

Costs: Setup fee up to $300. Monthly fee between $20 and $40.

Radio Frequency (RF)

RF works through the transmission of radio waves between a transponder, an antenna and a receiver, which when dispatched together by law enforcement, can determine a person’s location.

Pros: RF works for tracking individuals both inside and outside. The devices also don’t have to be removed for charging. Most use small watch batteries that are replaced once a month, and RF devices do not have to be removed for bathing or swimming.

Cons: RF requires multiple pieces of equipment to track properly, and it has a limited signal range as compared to GPS. RF also doesn’t allow the option of geofencing or perimeter notifications.

Example: Project Lifesaver ( is utilized by law enforcement across Central Indiana. In Hamilton County, 29 individuals currently have the device. Firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and K9 crews have responded to five alerts there since 2009, and each time, the individual was found safe within minutes, says project coordinator Dave McCormick. “This is the old-school transmission that our parents used in the `60s, but it’s very, very effective. Our divers have gone down 12 feet in the water, and we’ve still been able to pick up a signal.”

Costs: Setup fee of $300 (some counties, including Hamilton County, cover this cost). There is typically no monthly fee.

Despite the capability of technology, experts stress that nothing is foolproof and they caution parents against developing a false sense of security based on a locating device.

For more information, the Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) collaboration is a group of six national nonprofit autism organizations whose mission is to reduce autism-related wandering incidents and deaths. The AWAARE website,, includes tools and resources for preventing wandering, including a helpful Big Red Safety Box kit for parents.


Things to consider when choosing a locating device: 

-Does the system involve trained emergency response personnel?

-Does the unit have to be charged and, if so, how often?

-Is the unit water resistant? Can the unit transmit a signal while under water?

-Is geofencing/perimeter notification available?

-How will the child wear the unit? Can it be easily removed?

-What are costs involved? Are there monthly fees?

-Will the unit work in the area of your home, school, etc.?

Source: The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration 

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