“Elopement” is a clinical term used to describe when a child wanders off, runs away, or gets lost. It is a common behavioral challenge for children with ASD. For many families with children on the Spectrum, elopement is a major safety concern.
The most common places children from which children tend to elope, include home, school, or public spaces (like the grocery store). Oftentimes, the children who are most likely to elope are those with social or cognitive challenges who might also have difficulty regulating emotions. While it should be noted that most children who elope are found safely, elopement can be life-threatening, or result in serious injury.
Especially as we enter the colder months of the year, we feel it’s only appropriate to seize this opportunity to share some winter safety tips for families who may be struggling with elopement. Rather than learning how to respond when the situation arises (which is important!), we think it is equally important, to learn how to prevent elopement.
- Add a visual/ audible exit reminder to each door. This could be a stop sign, a bell, an alarm system, etc.
- Have your child practice stopping at the door with an adult each time they leave the house.
- Practice safe behaviors every time you go out. For children who tend to elope in public, it can be helpful to have them hold your hand, the shopping cart, etc. Some families utilize safety devices like a bracelet or backpack with a connecting parent attachment.
- Praise your child when you see safe behaviors- like looking both ways before crossing the street or waiting for an adult before leaving a building.
- Recruit your neighborhood watch. If your neighbors, school personnel, etc. know that your child is at risk of elopement, they can help monitor for safe behaviors or risky behaviors.
- Practice with your child about what they should do if they get lost or separated from you. If they can speak, ensure they know their name, address, and phone number. For children with limited language abilities, keep an identification card or bracelet on their person.
- Connect with local law enforcement to see about registering your child in case they do get lost. Many officials are part of Project Lifesaver, which is designed for families of individuals with ASD who tend to wander.
- Enroll your child in swimming lessons and educate them on water safety. Around 90% of elopement-related deaths are caused by drowning. Your child knowing how to swim, or understanding that they should never approach water without an adult, could potentially save their life.
- Develop a safety plan for your family. Take a daily picture so you have their current attire, haircut, etc. to share with emergency personnel if needed.
- Ensure anyone else who may be providing care for your child has important information like direct contact information, a medication list, warning signs, triggers, and de-escalation tactics.
- If your child does elope and is returned safely, take notes about the situation so you can understand what triggered the event. For example, if a loud event caused the elopement it may be helpful for your child to wear noise-cancelling headphones.
- Consider the use of a tracking device or GPS locator for children who frequently elope.
To learn more about elopement prevention, check out the resources below!
National Autism Association: https://nationalautismassociation.org/
Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Collaboration: http://awaare.org
Project Lifesaver: https://projectlifesaver.org/