Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Elopement, or wandering, as it is often called, is an important safety issue for individuals with autism or other disabilities, their families, and communities. This term describes the tendency for an individual to leave the safety of a known environment and caregiver. That might mean leaving the home when no one is looking or running away from school.
Because autistic individuals often have difficulties with communication and awareness of their own safety, this can be particularly dangerous. Autistic individuals may have trouble communicating their name and address, they may not be able to provide contact information for their caregivers, and they may not recognize environmental dangers. Additionally, children are often drawn to water and drowning is one of the leading causes of death in children with ASD.
Surveys show that nearly half of children diagnosed with autism between the ages of 4 and 10 have tried to elope. Of those who attempted, half were successful and were missing long enough to concern their parents or caregivers. Two out three parents surveyed who called the police reported their wandering child was nearly injured in traffic, while one in three reported near-drowning incidents.
Parents of autistic children who have wandered report these top five reasons for why their children wandered:
- Enjoyment, running, or exploring
- To escape an anxious situation (like school)
- Attempts to visit a place of enjoyment (such as the park)
- Pursuing something of interest
- To escape unpleasant sensory stimuli (loud or unpleasant noises)
Families or caregivers should be aware of the risks of elopement and take basic steps to keep their loved one safe. Taking some minimal steps to secure their home could prevent tragedy. That might involve installing deadbolts or an alarm system. If elopement is a particular concern, a tracking device might be a prudent precaution. An emergency plan that details what to do, who to contact, and where to look is also a good idea.
It is especially important to take these precautions into consideration when traveling. A hotel or a rental home may provide opportunities for elopement and wandering that are not typical in the child’s home environment.
The CDC advocates a three-tier approach for caregivers and family members:
- Watch the child’s behaviors
- Have an emergency plan to respond
- Keep information about the child up-to-date (picture, description)
- Secure your home and vacation locations (fences, door locks)
- Keep identification on the child (ID bracelet or information card)
- Notice signs that the child may wander off before it happens (for example, if a child makes a certain sound or looks towards the door)
- Be alert about the child’s location
- Provide a safe location
- Inform neighbors and school workers
- Alert first responders
- Take advantage of tracking devices such as Angelsense
Teach Safety Skills
- Responding to safety commands (“Stop”)
- Stating name and phone number or showing ID)
- Swimming, crossing the street
While there are steps parents and caregivers can take to minimize the risk of elopement, community awareness of the issue is also valuable and necessary. Neighbors and communities that are aware of individuals that could wander and what to do if it happens are more likely to intervene if that individual does elope.
There are also national initiatives that should be supported. Last March, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to help families locate missing loved ones who suffer from autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and other cognitive conditions. Kevin and Avonte’s Law was named for two autistic boys who tragically perished after wandering away from safety. The legislation aims to help educate and train caregivers to prevent wandering and makes tracking devices available to those who may benefit.
When parents or caregivers consider the challenges their loved one will face as an individual with autism, elopement is not typically a concern that comes to mind. It is, however, a life-threatening risk, particularly to children with autism. Hopefully, through better education, some basic precautions, and increased community awareness, the number of tragic stories involving elopement will decline.
Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D, is an Autism Industry authority, speaker, and ForbesBooks author of Autism Matters: Empowering Investors, Providers, & the Autism Community to Advance Autism Services.
Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D, is an Autism Industry authority, speaker, and ForbesBooks author of Autism Matters. She is the Founder & Principal of EmpoweringSynergy.com.