Submitted by: Kasey Gerhart
Have you ever said any of the following?
“He knows how to open the door and he just walks right out into the street!”
“She just sprints away from me and she is so fast!”
“He has climbed out of windows, opened car doors, and opened gates to get out of the house.”
“She has just wandered away from me without saying a word and doesn’t come back when I call for her.”
Elopement, also called wandering, is a behavior in which children leave the known area without asking or telling anyone and has the potential to result in very negative situations. It is an incredibly scary situation for parents of children with autism and can occur at home, in public, or at school with little to no warning. According to a recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics, elopement or wandering occurs in almost half of children with autism. The study also determined that elopement has little to do with parenting style or attentiveness. As with many behaviors associated with autism, wandering is another example in which there is no correlation between parenting and the number of occurrences.
However, as scary as elopement is, it is a behavior that can be worked on with your child’s behavior therapist. In the meantime, there are precautions that can be taken at home to deter your child from leaving the house. One example, created by The National Autism Association, is the Big Red Safety Toolkit. Within the toolkit, parents will find the Autism Wandering Prevention Brochure, First Responder Alert Form, Family Wandering Emergency Plan (FWEP) Template, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Sample Letter, and a Caregiver Check List. By using the toolkit, parents can help prepare family members, neighbors, and local first responders in case of an emergency. Also located within the toolkit are Stop Sign prompts. These prompts can be posted around the house and used to teach children with autism not to leave the area where the stop sign is posted. To access these resources, please visit http://nationalautismassociation.org/docs/BigRedSafetyToolkit.pdf.
Additional suggestions to prevent elopement include installing window and door alarms and childproof locks. It is also suggested that parents consider having their child wear a tag or tracking device in order to assist in locating the child. Above all, if your child elopes, immediately call 911 and search nearby water sources.
If your child is prone to wandering, it is a behavior that should be discussed with your behavior therapist. It is important to determine when and why your child’s wandering occurs (at night, to escape crowded or noisy places, or to access the desired location). Documentation will be helpful in determining this; therefore, anytime your child elopes, it will be helpful to document it in a journal and write down when, where, and what was happening at the time.
Elopement is a dangerous and frightening situation for many families, but together it is something that can be addressed so that your thoughts can focus on fun instead of fear.
Anderson, C. et. al. 2012. Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Pediatrics. (130) 870-877.