Joint Letter to CDC on Wandering

6 Apr

Below is a letter signed by a number of disability groups, including the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) on the issue of the proposed ICD-9 code for wandering. These organizations oppose the addition of the code, for the reasons given below.

This letter was sent to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics on Friday, April 1st.

Dear Ms. Pickett:

We are writing as a coalition of organizations representing a wide variety of different constituents in the disabilities field. The constituencies that we collectively represent number in the hundreds of thousands from every stakeholder group in the disability field. We include organizations run by people with disabilities as well as those run by parents, other family members, professionals, providers and many others. Our coalition also includes groups representing a wide array of different kinds of disability categories, including developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, physical disabilities and sensory disabilities. We are writing to express our profound concern about the proposed ICD-9-CM code for wandering discussed at the last meeting of the ICD Coordination and Maintenance Committee on March 9th-10th.

While wandering behavior leading to injury and death represents an important and legitimate safety issue for the disability community, we are concerned that the proposal put forward by CDC’s National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) is not rooted in high quality research and has significant potential unintended consequences for people with disabilities and family members. We encourage the National Center for Health Statistics to reject an ICD-9-CM coding for wandering behavior as ill-advised and inappropriate.

First, a code for wandering behavior could limit the self-determination rights of adults with disabilities. The wandering coding has no clear operational definition and thus no limits to its application. The proposal makes no distinction between wandering behavior that would qualify for the coding and a rational and willful effort by an individual with a disability to remove oneself from a dangerous or uncomfortable situation. For individuals with significant communication challenges, attempting to leave a situation may be one of the only ways of communicating abuse, a sensorily overwhelming situation or simple boredom. We are concerned that if this coding enters the ICD-9-CM such attempts at communication will be disregarded as medical symptoms.

Second, a code for wandering behavior could lead to serious unintended consequences in professional practice for schools and residential service-provision settings for adults with disabilities. Restraint and seclusion in schools and in residential service-provision settings is already a persistent problem. The application of this coding may result in increased restraint and seclusion as a way of preventing wandering behavior, supplanting required active support, person-centered planning and appropriate supervision. In addition, we are concerned that this coding may enable other forms of overly restrictive interventions and settings. For example, individuals with disabilities who are labeled with a wandering coding may be less likely to be included in the general education classroom, more likely to be placed in large group homes or institutions and more likely to experience chemical restraint. Each of these issues already represents a critical problem for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that this coding may exacerbate. For example, while only 18% of adults on the autism spectrum receiving developmental disability services have a diagnosis of mental illness, 41% of such individuals are receiving psychotropic medications, suggesting a high incidence of chemical restraint.

Third, the proposed ICD-9-CM code for wandering behavior lacks research support and is not based on evidence or a controlled examination of the issues involved. No research exists to look at wandering as a medical rather than behavioral issue. The research which CDC relies on to make the case for this coding is weak. For example, one of the statistics that CDC cites (that 92% of families of children on the autism spectrum report at least one or more incidents of wandering) comes not from a high quality research study, but instead from an online poll on the website of an advocacy organization. This is not in line with the high standards for research and evidence that the CDC bases its other decision-making on.

While we respect the good intentions behind the creation of this coding, we firmly believe that there are other ways of accomplishing the positive objectives of this coding without placing people with disabilities and our families at risk of the same unintended consequences. Other methods of data collection around wandering can and are being pursued by both public and private funders. In addition, a wide variety of human services and educational approaches hold significant promise in addressing the issue of dangerous wandering behavior outside of a medical context. As a result, we strongly urge you to consider and reject the proposed ICD-9-CM coding for wandering behavior.


Access Living
American Association of People with Disabilities
American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN)
The Arc of the United States
Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled (BCID)
Center for Self-Determination
Coalition for Community Integration
Collaboration for the Promotion of Self-Determination
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA)
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF)
Disabled in Action of Greater Syracuse
Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York
Disabled Queers in Action
Disability Network of Michigan
Disabilities Network of New York City
Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA)
Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley
Independent Living Council of Wisconsin
Independent Living Coalition of Wisconsin
Little People of America (LPA)
Kansas ADAPT
Montana ADAPT
National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disability Services (NASDDDS)
National Association of the Physically Handicapped
National Council on Independent Living (NCIL)
National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities
New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services
Options for Independence, Inc.
Pineda Foundation for Youth
Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE)
Silicon Valley Independent Living Center
Statewide Parent Advocacy Network of New Jersey (SPAN)
SKIL Resource Center of Kansas
Topeka Independent Living Center
United Spinal Association
Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities

2 Responses to “Joint Letter to CDC on Wandering”

  1. Eleanor April 6, 2011 at 21:10 #

    Couldn’t have put this any better.


  1. Autism, Wandering, and “Handicapped Parking” | Rambling Autism Mom - May 27, 2013

    […] bolting away from safety). The use of this diagnostic code is not without controversy, however; several disability rights activist groups fear it will be used as justification for greater use of restraint, seclusion, and civil rights […]

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