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Autism and the Risk of Wandering/Elopement

Brooke Price with her Autistic son

Elopement is a very common problem with Autistic children and can start out of nowhere, without any prior incidents or warnings that it is going to happen. The wandering behaviors that Autistic children show are like the wandering behaviors that we see in the Alzheimer’s community. Wandering and elopement behaviors in children and adults with autism have led to countless tragedies across the country. There are things you can do to lower your risks of a tragedy. Being aware that it is a real problem is the first step to fighting it.


Per AWAARE, “In 2011, a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network (IANPROJECT), through the Kennedy Krieger Institute, found that 49% of children with autism attempt to elope from a safe environment.” That is at a rate of nearly “four times higher than their unaffected siblings.” One of the scariest parts of it for parents is knowing that if the child that wandered is Autistic sometimes in a stressful situation they shut down; or, in some cases can’t communicate at all with first responders or any other person that may find them to begin with.

In fact, the study also found “that more than one-third of children with autism who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number.” It is also noted that “two in three parents of elopers reported their missing children had a “close call” with a traffic injury.” To add to that, “thirty-two percent of parents reported a “close call” with a possible drowning.” Wandering was also ranked among the most stressful autism behaviors by 58% of parents of elopers, per IAN.

To add to it, most of us find out about this behavior from another parent or because our child happens to do it. It is reported that half of families with elopers convey they never received advice or guidance about elopement from a professional during or after their child was diagnosed.

Per the National Autism Society, here are some more important points about wandering and Autism:

-Increased risks are associated with autism severity
-Other dangers include: dehydration; heat stroke; hypothermia; falls; physical restraint; and encounters with strangers

The Risks of Wandering

It is important to note that Autistic wandering behaviors “happen under every type of supervision and are usually a form of communication — an ‘I need,’ ‘I want,’ or ‘I don’t want.”’ Individuals with ASD will wander or bolt to get to something of interest, or away from something bothersome. It is a well-known fact that while wandering can occur in any situation, be it at home or not; outdoor gatherings present a unique challenge since it is often “assumed there are more eyes on the child or adult with autism.” However, “heavy distractions coupled with an over-stimulating setting can lead to a child or adult wandering off without notice.”

“Children and adults with autism wander from all types of settings, such as:
-educational settings
-therapeutic settings
-residential settings
-camp programs
-outdoor events
-public places
-and home settings, including relatives and babysitters’ homes.”

Per AWAARE, “wandering and elopement tend to increase in warmer months, especially in mid-section areas of the US where home layouts and routines are adapted to accommodate changing weather.” This is because a person with autism is more likely to play outside or attend summer or day camps during this time.

This isn’t something to be taken lightly, children die because of wandering. It is widely reported that in “2009, 2010, and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering/elopement.” Sixty-eight percent of these deaths happened in a pond, lake, creek or river near to their home.

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What Parents Can Do

There are things parents can do to protect their children with ASD from this very real and scary danger.

Per Healthychildren.org, you want to know wandering triggers in your child. Over time you will learn these, but in the meantime, there are things you can do within your home and your life to limit the possibility of your children wandering off.

“-Secure your home—regardless of your child's age. Shut and lock doors that lead outside. Consider putting alarms on doors to alert you if a door has been opened.” I have alarms on all my doors, along with visual stop signs and my windows stay secured.

“-Reinforce water and swimming safety. Home swimming pools should be surrounded by a fence that prevents a child from getting to the pool from the house. There is no substitute for at least a four-foot-high, non-climbable, four-sided fence with a self-closing, self-latching gate. Pool alarms and door alarms are also protection products that may have some benefits. Note, however, that swimming lessons are not enough to prevent drowning; swimming lessons in wet clothes and shoes could be suggested for children with ASD who tend to wander.”

“-Work on communication and behavior strategies. Teaching your child strategies to self-calm when stressed and appropriately respond to "no" can make a big difference. Make sure your child's teachers and other family members understand how important it is to keep your child engaged and busy to reduce his or her urge or opportunity to wander.”

“-Set expectations. Before going out in a public place, communicate the plan with your child and other family members—including the timeline and rules to follow. Consider noise-canceling headphones if noise is a trigger and use the "tag team" approach to make certain your child is always supervised by a trusted adult.”

“-Consider monitoring technology and identification.” Remember that more than “1/3 of children with ASD who wander are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number. It may be helpful to have things like GPS devices, medical alert tags, and even their name marked in clothing. Project Lifesaver and SafetyNet Tracking or other programs may be available through your local law enforcement agencies.”

“-Monitor their sleep. Children with ASD may be less hyperactive and less likely to wander during the night if they have a sleep management plan and a regular sleep schedule. Caregivers who get enough sleep are also more vigilant.”
-If possible, teach your child your phone number, address and what to do in an emergency. Autistic children and adults tend to be great memorizers, help them to memorize this life saving information.

Worried about Wandering?

If you are extremely worried about your child’s wandering habits, then talk with their pediatrician about creating “a family wandering emergency plan.” Per reports,” the diagnostic code for wandering is Z91.83. This can be used in your visits with medical professionals. Your pediatrician can give you additional strategies that may be helpful in increasing your child's safety, as well as information about local resources.”