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A study back in 2012 confirmed what many parents of autistic children already knew. Elopement, also known as wandering, is a terrifyingly common occurrence in children with autism. Twice this summer already, we have heard of two little boys with autism wandering off and drowning. We have had our incidents with wandering (and just plain bolting away!) that have caused a ton of stress on everyone!

Autism and Wandering

As a mom of three children on the spectrum, I wish I had known more about an elopement in autism. So, to help provide that information to you, today we will go over autism and wandering. We will answer what elopement is, why it happens, and the steps you can take to safeguard your child with autism from wandering.

Autistic children often engage in wandering behavior These tips will help you prevent your special needs or child with from wandering autismawareness autismparenting

What is Elopement?

When many people hear the word elope, they instantly think of a couple sneaking off the Vegas to get married. Elopement (primarily when referring to autism) is when a person leaves an area without permission or notification, quickly putting the person in a potentially dangerous situation.

Elopement can happen when a person wanders or bolts away from a safe area. These can be places such as a classroom, parent, or home. As you can imagine, the combination of autism and wandering can be a hazardous mix.

Why do children with autism wander?

This is one of those questions that doesn’t have a steady answer. According to the study done in 2012 appears online in the journal Pediatrics, these are the top 5 reasons why children with autism wander:

  • Enjoys exploring (54%)
  • Heads for a favorite place (36%)
  • Escapes demands/anxieties (33%)
  • Pursues special topic (31%)
  • Escapes sensory discomfort (27%)

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We have three children with autism who are very different within our home. Our youngest daughter wanders due to anxiety. When she is in a complete meltdown, there is a very high chance she will bolt to escape her anxiety. 

Our son won’t wander off when he has anxiety. However, he will wander “just because.” Whatever catches his attention, he is bound and determined to go to it. He is the one that worries me the most as his wandering is much less predictable.

Our oldest daughter with autism doesn’t wander at all. Each child with autism is different and will have different reasons/causes for wandering.

What Can I do to Stop my child with autism from wandering?

One of the first things you can do to help prevent wandering is to understand what type of wander they are (impulsive, goal-focused, random, sudden runner, etc.). Once you have done this, you will need to determine the trigger that causes them to elope. Knowing the triggers of why they wander helps greatly.

If you can avoid the trigger, you can avoid many cases of wandering or be prepared for it to happen. Some triggers (like sudden running) are not predictable, but you can take precautions to help keep them safe. For our children, it usually happenings during transitioning.

Understanding autism elopement is key to helping your child stay safe autism autismparenting autismawareness

What precautions should I take?

You can take several precautionary steps if your child with autism wanders off. Out of this entire list, the first one is the most important. Please teach your child with autism to swim.

Many children with autism are drawn to water. Others can quickly just run into a body of water without intending to. Either way, knowing how to swim is the difference between life and death.

Autism and wandering, unfortunately, tend to go hand in hand. Like any other concern, educating yourself is the best preventable measure you can take. Another great resource I have found is the Big Red Safety Toolkit from the National Autism Association. You can download your free copy here.

Alicia Trautwein is an Autism advocate, writer, motivational speaker, and dedicated mom of four. Alicia’s desire to advocate for Autism comes from her own autism diagnosis and that of her three children, niece, and brother. Her life’s mission is to educate on autism acceptance and change the world for future generations of autistic individuals.

10 Comments

  1. Lovely blog – such useful information!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and what other parents can do to help their little one who are going through this.

  3. Very informative, and great that you can figure out the triggers so you can be preventative.

  4. Great recommendations for safety precautions! Those things can help with parents peace of mind.

  5. Thank you for this post! I was a special education teacher and dealt with elopement of students too many times! It’s great to read something that can help us and their parents!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have three children on the spectrum, a 5 year old and twin 2.5 year old who just got diagnosed in July. Our youngest of the twins is a wanderer and I’m looking for ways to keep him safe!

  7. Glad we could help!

  8. Triggers good info. Wish I knew this 20 yrs ago. Taught my son to swim very young. Young adult elopements horrible. Can’t get ANYONE (AFH places, caseworker, etc) to understand gaming addiction causes overstimulation &sensory shutdown. He runs off& violent behavior. I’m at a loss.
    Thank you

  9. The tips are very useful. Thanks. My eldest son wandered off quite often when he was younger. We are blessed that many people had helped us during this period. He had gone missing once for nearly 4 hours and the entire neighborhood went out of their way to search for him. This kind of support is very vital to a family with autistic kids (I have 2 autistic boys and another with ADHD/Dyslexia). The tags/labels helped a lot as there will know where to send him back. My son is now 16 years old and is managing reasonably well. Believe in yourself and the child, and goodness of people.

  10. Thank you so much for this information! My son has started wandering and it is terrifying! I just ordered a chain lock for our door, the angelsense, and the stop signs!

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