It’s common for children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to run or wander away from caregivers or secure locations. This is called elopement. Elopement is common in children with autism and can be a traumatic situation for a child and caregivers. Understanding why your child elopes and how to prevent it may help decrease stress and prevent accidental injuries.
Why do children with autism elope?
Children with autism may elope for a variety of reasons:
- Some children elope to get to desired items or places. For example, a child might elope to get to a favorite toy in a store.
- Children with autism may find it hard to cope with certain everyday situations and may elope to get away from stresses. For example, a child may elope to get away from a noisy birthday party.
- Other children elope because they enjoy running or being chased by a caregiver, so they may elope when a caregiver is distracted.
If you are caring for a child who elopes, start a journal to log the instances of elopement, including what she may have been running away from or toward. Identifying common triggers can help you be more prepared to prevent elopement.
How to prevent elopement
The following tips may keep your child from wandering away:
- Put locks on doors and windows that your child cannot unlock. If you use a key to lock windows and doors, ensure the key is easily accessible to adults in case of an emergency.
- Install alarms so you are alerted if your child has opened a door or window.
- Have your child wear a device that allows you to track her location. There are some devices that will alert you if your child has left a certain perimeter.
- Monitor your child frequently. During busy times when you may be more easily distracted, set a timer to remind yourself to check on your child.
- Give frequent praise and/or rewards when your child doesn’t elope.
How to reduce harm when your child elopes
Do the following to reduce the chance of harm if your child does elope:
- Remain prepared for an elopement so you can act quickly and confidently.
- Identify people like neighbors and family who agree to help you search if needed.
- Prepare materials that include your child’s name, communication abilities, ways to calm your child if she is upset, a current picture, caregiver contact information, and places your child has commonly eloped to in the past. Distribute this information to individuals in your search party as well as public authorities.
- Teach your child to recite her name, telephone number and address, or keep this information attached to your child during times when elopement is likely to occur.
If elopement is a regularly occurring issue for your child, seek assistance from a psychologist or behavior analyst with experience in treating elopement to develop a comprehensive treatment plan.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.