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Autism Elopement: Causes, Risks, and Prevention

May 17, 2024

“Joey!” I went running out of my house, screaming my son’s name. While I was in the bathroom, he had learned how to unlock our deadbolt and was in the driveway headed for the street. It was one of the scariest moments of my life when I realized my son was not in the house. This was my first experience with autism elopement behavior.

Since that day, my son has managed to get out of the house a few more times. He tries to break free from my wife and me when we are out in public. He gives his teachers a run for their money. For many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, elopement is an everyday fear.

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Autism Safety

What is autism elopement?

Children with autism elope when they run or wander away from a parent or caregiver. While many kids, both neurotypical and neurodiverse, may wander, elopement behavior can be a serious safety concern for an autistic child.

Many children with autism are unable to communicate their needs. Because of that, they struggle with letting anyone who finds them know how to reunite them with their caregiver.

According to research, nearly half of children with autism have attempted to elope after the age of four. That includes 46% eloping between the ages of four and seven and 53% being gone long enough to cause concern.

The same research also found that 27% of children on the autism spectrum eloped between the ages of eight and eleven compared to just 1% for neurotypical children. With numbers this high, it’s important for parents to learn common triggers.

What causes elopement behavior in autism?

There are many situations that could cause a child with autism to elope. Some of the most common causes include:

  • fight or flight response,
  • desire to explore,
  • avoiding sensory input,
  • distractions.

Sensory issues tend to be one of the primary motivators in these situations. Fight or flight response and avoiding sensory input are often connected to sensory overload. Sensory stimulation can foster a desire to explore or distract a child when they need to be focused.

Elopement behavior risks

Elopement comes with many risks to the health and well-being of the child. Children can wander away from a safe and secure environment and into dangerous situations. Bodies of water, busy streets, and construction sites present danger that can lead to serious injury or even death.

I can’t tell you the number of news stories I’ve read about a child with autism drowning where they eloped from their caregiver and wound up in a body of water. The fear of what could happen to your child also leads to high stress levels for the parents or caregivers.

A young child walking near a lake https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-elopement/

When my son got out of the house and was in the driveway, I was both scared and relieved. When he got out of the house and was standing next to my truck that was parked in the street, I was fearful someone would drive too fast and hit him before I reached him.

The most recent time he got away was at my in-laws’ house. He ran out of the house and into the backyard, where, thankfully, my mother-in-law and wife were, and they brought him back into the house.

These situations are exactly why autism parents must be proactive in protecting their children from elopement dangers.

Elopement prevention and safety

If you come to my house, my wife and I may appear to have gone overboard. But knowing the risks for our child and his communication difficulties if he doesn’t have his AAC device with him, we will do anything we can to prevent elopement.

There are many steps parents of autistic children can take to help keep them safe. These include:

  • Hiding keys – My family has keys on key rings that we always keep with us. While my younger son hasn’t shown the ability to use a key yet, he has proven to find his way into things we didn’t know he could.
  • Installing special locks – Installing locks that require a key on both sides can help keep children with autism safe.
  • Installing door and window alarms – When the alarm is engaged, a blaring sound will go off whenever someone opens a door or window.
  • Using harnesses – Having your child wear a harness can prevent them from breaking free from your grip while walking in public.  
  • Using wearable GPS – Several companies create GPS devices that can be attached to clothes your child wears to help keep them safe.
  • Wearing an ID bracelet – Should your child elope, an identification bracelet will help anyone who finds them get them to a safe environment. These bracelets can include the child’s name, address, diagnosis, and what to do if found without an adult.
  • Constant supervision – It’s important to keep an eye on your child at all times. Someone should always be prepared to step in to stop an attempted breakaway.
  • Wearing bright clothing – Dress your child in bright clothing to help those who may need to look for them should the child elope.

What should you do if your child elopes?

Unfortunately, elopement can still happen when you have children with autism. If your child elopes, it’s best to have a plan in place to help find them.

If you can still see your child:

  • run after them,
  • use language you know that may convince them to stop,
  • alert neighbors, family members, or other adults nearby of the situation so they can help protect your child with autism.

If you can’t see your child:

  • call the police and inform them of the situation,
  • search the place where the child might go,
  • alert neighbors, family, and friends and ask for assistance with the search.

Preventing elopement isn’t always possible, but having assistance can help you with your search.


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Navigating elopement strategies

Speaking from experience, when your child elopes, it’s one of the scariest moments in your life. It becomes doubly scary if your child has been diagnosed with autism and is nonverbal like my son is. You are far from the first parent to experience this, and we can work together to support each other.

Preventing elopement requires constant vigilance and being proactive. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an even bigger village to protect an autistic child. Have open communication and dialogue with your family members, your child’s school, and other caregivers. Working together, we can keep our children safe.

FAQs

Q: Do adults with autism elope?

A: Elopement is when a person with autism wanders or runs away from caregivers. Both children and adults with ASD have been found to elope.

Q: What is an example of elopement behavior in autism?

A: Elopement can best be described as running away from caregivers in public places. This can include leaving a school classroom or wandering off during family gatherings.

Q: Can autistic adults live independently?

A: It depends on the support needs required. However, autistic adults with lower support needs have been able to live independently.

Q: Why do children with autism wander?

A: Children with autism often elope from secure locations to get to something that interests them or to escape a stressful or frightening situation.

References:

Andersen, A.M., Law, J.K., Marvin, A.R. et al. Elopement Patterns and Caregiver Strategies. J Autism Dev Disord 50, 2053–2063 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-03961-x

Boyle, M. A., Keenan, G., Forck, K. L., & Curtis, K. S. (2019). Treatment of Elopement Without Blocking With a Child With Autism. Behavior Modification, 43(1), 132-145.

Ek, H. N. (2022). Evidence-Based Interventions to Address Elopement in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder [Masterʼs thesis, Bethel University]. Spark Repository.

Kennedy Krieger Institute. “Nearly half of children with autism wander or ‘bolt’ from safe places.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 October 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121008082650.htm

Pereira-Smith, S., Boan, A., Carpenter, L.A., Macias, M. and LaRosa, A. (2019), Preventing elopement in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research, 12: 1139-1146.

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