Help! My autistic child runs away. What can I do?
All of these words are synonymous with Elopement. Nearly half of autistic children have attempted to elope at least once past age 4 (Science Daily, 2012).
Wandering or Elopement Can Mean the Difference Between Life and Death
We see it on the news. Then the comments come…the judgment. “Where were the parents?” Upwards of 80% of Autistic children have sleep disruptions (ATN, 2023). This means that parents may be experiencing sleep deprivation. In addition, neurodivergence often runs in families; parents may have their own attention and sensory differences. Parents may not have their own needs met, which can lead to day to day challenges.
Thankfully, many instances of elopement have a “happy ending”, but some do not. It’s important to do whatever we can as parents and providers to make sure families are taken care of, resources are in place, and preventative measures are taken in an attempt to prevent elopement.
What Should We Do to Prevent Elopement in Autistic Children?
(steps in no particular order)
Step One: Try to Determine the Root Cause of the Elopement.
Autistic children wander for a variety of reasons (some are listed below):
- An attempt to get to desired places.
- An unmet sensory need. (enjoying running, the chase, or other input they get from elopement)
- Underlying emotional or Physical Causes (anxiety, stress, impulsivity)
- Being in a New Place
Step Two: Address the Underlying Cause
If you’re able to pinpoint the reason a child elopes, it’s important to address the cause. If the child enjoys running, they may benefit from a safe environment to run in. If the child is feeling anxiety, they may benefit from treatment from a medical professional.
Step Three: Support the Family
This is an area many neurodiverse families might express as an area of need. Are we contributing funding to nonprofits or agencies that offer full family support? Is there a years or decades long waiting list for access to care? Respite for parents, occupational therapy, speech therapy…are families able to access these services? If you are a provider, you might research local resources for entire families to ensure that parents are at their physical and cognitive best in order to attentively care for their children. If you are a parent, it may be helpful to pinpoint things or resoures you could use for support.
Step Four: Increase Safety Measures
You might consider specialty locks or alarms on doors and windows to your home. If your child bolts near water, you may consider using “Water Guardians” from Levi’s Legacy as a tangible reminder of which caregiver is responsible for watching the child.
- Have information together for emergencies: medical information, a photo of your child, demographic information, etc.
- Determine neighbors or nearby agencies that may be helpful in an emergency and reach out to them as a precaution.
- Consider a GPS device (jiobit, angel care).
- Consider having information on your child’s clothing or bag in case they elope. Many autistic children do not use spoken language or may not be able to communicate effectively in an emergency.
Step Five: Use Social Stories
Creating a social story for unique situations can be helpful in reducing undesired behaviors. You can find more information on using social stories in this blog post. Social stories are often most effective when introduced during calm moments, when they are tailored to the individual child, and when they have content that is meaningful to the child (such as real photos from their enviroment).
I created a social story on elopement that is available for purchase. It contains several variations including a version that is customizable in google slides. You can purchase it here or on teachers pay teachers.
Step Six: Increase Access to Communication
Many parents come into speech therapy with the expectation of spoken communication. It is called speech therapy, but the ultimate goal of most speech/language intervention is communication. Communication can come in a variety of ways, including verbal, sign language, writing, use of augmentative communication, etc. Be sure your child and clients have access to communication that is effective for them.
If you experience elopement and cannot find your child, call 911. The information on this website is not intended as a substitution for appropriate medical care, speech therapy, sensory integration, or other supports.