May 6, 2014

BETHESDA, MD—While a swimming pool, pond, lake, stream, or river may be a source of tranquility to most, to a parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it can be deadly. According to a 2011 study by the Interactive Autism Network and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, 49% of children with ASD attempt to elope from supervision. This rate is 4 times higher than children unaffected by ASD. Of this population, more than a third of the children with ASD who wander are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number. From 2009 to 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% of all deaths reported in children 14 years and younger with ASD who are subsequent to wandering.

Occupational therapy practitioners are experts in activity and participation and help to establish safe daily routines (occupations). This activity analysis and modification can help prevent wandering. Specifically, occupational therapy practitioners can:

Increase awareness of the National Autism Association’s (NAA’s) Big Red Safety Toolkit which provides strategies and resources to prevent wandering. These resources also contain materials to help locate a child who has wandered off.

Provide in-services for first responders on classic behaviors associated with ASD to assist in search-and-rescue operations. For example, an unexpected touch on the shoulder may encourage a child with sensory differences to bolt, thereby impacting a safe recovery.
Help students adapt school routines to ensure safety such as setting up buddy systems or creating a color-coded safety path for students with disabilities to follow during bus evacuations to prevent wandering. In the school setting, recess and bus transportation to and from school are the most likely times for a child to wander.

Design sensory-friendly swimming programs for children with ASD so they become safer in the water thereby reducing drowning risk. Not only do pools and waterways pose a drowning risk, but in some situations can lead to exposure and hypothermia. Swimming programs for kids with ASD promotes water safety and socialization.
“As front-line providers, occupational therapy practitioners can help to prevent or reduce wandering in homes, schools, and the community,” says Sandra Schefkind, MS, OTR/L, Pediatric Program Manager for the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). “Recently, AOTA collaborated with the NAA to adapt an existing Wandering Fact Sheet for occupational therapy practitioners. We will continue to highlight this important issue to keep our children and families safe while participating fully in daily life activities.”

Helping children live life to its fullest involves careful attention to both the physical and mental health of children and their families. Occupational therapy practitioners are activity experts ready to provide prevention, promotion, and intervention strategies for meaningful participation in everyday activities. In accordance with occupational therapy’s holistic approach to health care, AOTA is a supporter of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day on May 8.

To raise awareness of this day, Schefkind will moderate a virtual Pediatric Chat on Autism Awareness and Safety at 7 p.m. ET on Monday, May 5. The chat will feature representatives from NAA, occupational therapy practitioners, and a first-responder. They will discuss ways to work together to keep children with ASD safe. A recording will be available on the site following the chat.

According to SAMHSA, more than 1,100 community-based mental health service and support providers, community programs, schools, and collaborating organization affiliates from across the country are estimated to be celebrating this annual observance. To learn more about occupational therapy’s role in autism spectrum disorder, visit AOTA’s autism microsite. For more information about National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, visit

Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 140,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential.

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