What is Elopement in Children with ASD and Why Does It Happen?
As parents and caretakers, we all want to keep our children safe; by our side and within our sight. But as caretakers of children with ASD, we also know our kids face unique risks in their day-to-day. What are these risks, and how can we minimize them for our families?
Elopement is a term used in the mental health and caregiving community to describe when individuals with special needs wander from a caregiving environment. Although neurotypical children can also wander away from parents on occasion, children with ASD elope much more frequently in a variety of contexts, often in response to overstimulation. Elopement can become dangerous in crowded areas like the mall, school, or large outdoor gatherings.
Children with autism may wander consciously or unconsciously as a way to relieve stress. For example, if a child has a hard time dealing with noise from other students during recess, they may elope to a far corner of the schoolyard. Children can also wander while seeking out a particular location or object they enjoy: i.e., seeking out a food they like at the grocery store. Even under constant supervision from a parent, children with ASD may elope if they feel over or understimulated.
Taking note of when and where our children tend to elope can help predict future incidents. However, wandering in children with ASD is spontaneous and difficult to forecast. Taking preventative measures will help ensure our family’s safety regardless of behavioral outcomes. Some things parents can do today include:
- Teach our children to effectively communicate their feelings. If they want to do a certain activity or escape a certain situation, we can teach them how to send that message before eloping.
- Keeping doors and windows locked in our home. An alarm system is also great extra insurance.
- Letting neighbors, teachers, and caretakers know about elopement concerns. We can tell them what to do if they see our child wandering away from home or a safe area.
- Register our child with local law enforcement. Police agencies keep databases of who to assist when found alone.
- Have our child wear an ID bracelet and/or tracking bracelet. The ID bracelet includes our child’s disability status and contact information, while the tracking bracelet can show our child’s location on GPS.
We can also prepare emergency kits with our child’s description, photo, communication methods, allergies, medications, and contact info.
Although elopement occurs in over half of children with ASD, there are small steps we can all immediately take to ensure their safety.