Wandering and Elopement in Autism
It is common for individuals with ASD to wander (or elope) away from home or parent/caregiver supervision, putting them at risk of dangerous or traumatic situations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately one half of all children and youth with ASD have been reported to wander from home, school, or other environments. Challenges with communication, social interaction, attention, and learning can complicate a wandering situation, as individuals with ASD may not be able to find their way home (or even desire to return home) or recognize that they may be in an unsafe situation.
It is important that families watch an individual’s behavior to avoid wandering and have an emergency plan in place in the event that the individual does wander. Simple strategies such as
- locking doors and windows may prevent wandering, especially in younger children
- wearing an identification bracelet or temporary tattoo listing their emergency contact information in case individuals with ASD are found to be wandering by law enforcement officers
- alerting neighbors, family members, and local first responders that an individual has a tendency to wander is also a helpful step in reducing the safety risks associated with wandering.
Another safety concern for individuals with ASD centers on their sometimes increased tolerance for pain and limited (or lack of) sense of danger. In the event that an individual with ASD is in a crisis situation and/or has an injury, he or she may not recognize that they are hurt or be able to effectively communicate pain to a first responder. Strategies such as visual supports can assist with the social-communication challenges of individuals with ASD in crisis situations.
Indiana University School of Medicine Safety Store contains a number of products and materials related to youth safety, including ASD-specific kits and tools that may be of use to families of individuals with ASD.
When a dependent family member with ASD leaves the home without supervision, it is essential to act quickly. If your child leaves home without supervision, call 911 immediately. Make sure to inform the 911 operator the child’s name, your relationship to the child, contact phone numbers, and your location. If you are able to recall when the child was first noticed missing, and the clothing that he or she was wearing, share that information too. Request an Amber Alert be issued or an endangered missing advisory. Contact the person you have designated as your emergency Key Person (ask them to contact friends to help search and make arrangements for the care of any of your other children while you search). Write down any instructions the 911 operator tells you. Do not hang up until they say it is OK to do so. If your child is attracted to water, IMMEDIATELY ask them to check nearby water sources such as lakes, ponds, pools, etc. When law enforcement officials arrive, give them all the information on your Alert for Missing Child with Autism form, located on the Big Red Safety Toolkit If your child is attracted to water, IMMEDIATELY ask them to check nearby water sources such as lakes, ponds, pools, etc.
You can take proactive measures that make it more difficult for your child to elope from the home unsupervised:
- Keep your home secure, and all doors and windows locked
- Consider installing an alarm so you’re aware of doors or windows being open or shut
- Equip your home with visuals that your child can utilize as cues to stay inside, examples may include a STOP sign on a door or window.
- If you live near water, consider installing a fence.
- Notify neighbors if your child is a chronic eloper so they are aware and can take action if they spot your child in the neighborhood unsupervised.
When eloping from the home has occurred in the past, or is a frequent occurrence, you may want to consider purchasing a tracking device. These range in type of device and price, and can be extremely helpful to families and first responders should your child leave the home unsupervised. There are many grants and programs that sponsor a free or cost-reduction for a tracking device. Contact your local fire or police department to inquire about their participation in these programs.
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