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Tips You Need to Know to Protect a Wandering Autistic Child


In a recent study published online in the medical journal Pediatrics, researchers sought to quantify what until now has been anecdotal knowledge that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have a tendency to wander or bolt (also referred to as elopement) when a parent is not looking. Such incidences of leaving the safety of home have led to numerous injuries and fatalities among autistic children. In at least one separate study, the mortality rate determined among the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) population is twice as high as that of the general population.

To better understand the actual extent of the problem of wandering in autistic children, researchers from the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) surveyed the families of 1,218 children with autism spectrum disorder and 1,076 of their siblings as a control comparison with an online questionnaire. The study is part of a project in concert with the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

What the researchers found was that the risk of an autistic child wandering off unsupervised is much more than anecdotal. According to a press release issued by Kennedy Krieger Institute, the survey revealed the following significant findings:

Elopement Prevalence

• 49 percent of children with ASD attempted to elope at least once after age 4.
• Of those who attempted to elope, 53 percent of children with ASD went missing long enough to cause concern.
• From age 4 to 7, 46 percent of children with ASD eloped, which is four times the rate of unaffected siblings.
• From age 8 to 11, 27 percent of affected children eloped compared with 1 percent of unaffected siblings.

Elopement Behavior

• When eloping, 74 percent of affected children eloped from their own home or someone else's home. Children also eloped from stores (40 percent) and classroom or schools (29 percent).
• Close calls with traffic injury were reported for 65 percent of the missing children.
• Close calls with drowning were reported for 24 percent of the missing children.
• Elopement attempts peaked at age 5.4 years. Of parents reporting on the "worst year ever," 29 percent said that their child attempted to elope multiple times a day; an additional 35 percent reported that attempts occurred at least once per week.
• While eloping, children with Asperger disorder were more frequently described by their parents as anxious; children with ASD were more frequently described as happy, playful or exhilarated. In either case, elopement was goal oriented, with the intent to go somewhere or do something.

Characteristics of Eloping

• Children who have eloped are older, more likely to have an ASD, present more severe autism symptoms and have lower intellectual and communication scores than non-elopers.
• Children who were reported as missing were older, more likely to have experienced skill loss and less likely to respond to their name. They were also more likely to have lower intellectual and communication scores than non-missing children.
• On average, children were missing for 41.5 minutes.

Impact of Elopement on Family

• 56 percent of parents reported elopement as one of the most stressful behaviors they had to cope with as caregivers of a child with ASD.
• 50 percent of parents reported receiving no guidance from anyone on preventing or addressing their child's elopement behavior.
• After children went missing, parents most frequently contacted neighbors (57 percent). Parents also called police (35 percent), school (30 percent) and store personnel (26 percent)

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"We hope that the results of this study will inform families, physicians, educators and first responders of the real consequences of elopement," says Dr. Paul Law, senior author and director of the IAN Project at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. "Parents often fear being viewed as neglectful when their children leave from safe places. This study demonstrates that we urgently need interventions to address elopement and provide support to affected families."

To help families with autistic children protect their child from coming to harm through prevention measures and awareness, the following tips are recommended by health authorities and experts on autism spectrum disorders:

Autism Elopement Prevention Measures

• Install simple hook and eye locks on all doors above your child’s reach.
• Install dead bolt locks that use keys on both sides to open a door.
• Fence your yard and install gate locks.
• Install a home security alarm system and/or alarms that sound off when a door or window is opened.
• Use GPS-rated tracking devices that can be worn on the wrist, ankle or clothing.

Autism Elopement Awareness Measures

• Have your child wear a medical ID bracelet with contact and medical info in case he or she gets lost.
• Get to know your neighbors and alert them that your child with autism may have wandered off if they are seen in the neighborhood without an adult present.
• Have copies of handouts readily available with a recent image of your child and pertinent information that can help someone identify and approach your child if he or she has wandered off.

Autism Elopement Safety Measures

Enroll your child in swimming classes. Research has shown that drowning, along with prolonged exposure to the elements and other factors, remain among the top causes of death within the population of children with autism. Depending on the community and local laws, some neighborhood homes may not have protective fencing that can keep a curious child from entering.

For additional helpful information about autism on this website, follow this link to an article that lists the top 10 signs of autism in infants.

Image Source: Courtesy of Morgue File


“Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders”
Pediatrics Published online October 8, 2012; Connie Anderson, PH.D. et al.

Autism and Wandering Brochure



Thank you, this is just what we need. I have two boys on the spectrum; the oldest (who has never been as affected as his brother) wandered several times when he was younger, but basically stopped (grew out of it?) around 2 1/2 years of age -- shortly after his brother was born. My now-12-y-o, on the other hand, wandered when he was young, stopped for quite a while, then started again a couple of years ago. During one week this summer, we had to call the police 4 times! That, of course, prompted a visit from a DHS worker, who proved to be very understanding and helpful. We now have alarms on all 4 doors to the outside, locks on all 3 gates from our backyard, double-keyed deadbolts on both doors to the front yard, and a simple lock on the door from the bedrooms to the living room. So far, so good (as long as we set the door alarms & lock the gates), but I know it's only a matter of time before we need to upgrade again, b/c my son knows where the key to the living room is, even if he can't reach or (hopefully) use it yet. We'd like to get a tracking device, but I really want one that's water-proof, too. Does anyone have any suggestions?
We are dealing with the same issue. We have installed a camera system for surveillance both inside and outside of our home, alarms on the doors and windows. Our son still managed to escape and the police were called before we even knew he was gone. He was removed from our home for nearly three days and we are pending a "neglect" investigation. I have also looked into a tracking device but can find none available for our zip code that have all of the necessary requirements as of yet. My city doesn't have any resources here yet to provide guidance.
Thank you so much. My 11 year old son was "removed" from his school that he has attended since age 5 , because he keep ed running way from the new teacher.my sons whole life was turned upside down because the school couldn't or wouldn't take the time to help him