Autism Elopement: Steps To Guard Against Wandering

Autism Elopement: Steps To Guard Against Wandering

Autism elopement, also known wandering, is a significant concern for many families of children with autism. The tendency of some children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to leave a safe environment can pose serious risks. 

A 2012 study found that 49% of autistic children above age 4 had attempted to elope at least once.  Of those who went missing, 24% were in danger of drowning and 65% were in danger of traffic injury. 

The National Autism Association reports that nearly a third of reported ASD missing person cases related to wandering/elopement ended in death or required medical attention.

The impact of wandering can be dangerous for the child and trigger extreme stress for parents and caregivers. Fully 56% of parents who experienced elopement say it was one of the most stressful behaviors they’d had to cope with.

Understanding Why Children With Autism Elope

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may wander for several reasons. A common trigger is the need to escape from a sensory environment that feels overwhelming. Alternatively, they might be drawn towards a particular fascination or desired location. 

Sensory Overload

For some children with autism, the motivation to wander can be linked to sensory overload. Noisy or crowded environments may provoke anxiety or discomfort, prompting a child to seek a quieter or more secure space.

Attraction to Specific Targets

Certain stimuli, especially those aligned with the child’s interests, such as water bodies, parks, or familiar locations, can also attract children to wander towards them. The inherent lack of danger awareness in children with autism enhances these risks significantly.

Lack of Attention 

A 2010 study of school children found that access to attention or lack of a preferred activity could trigger wandering.

Understanding the motivation behind elopement can help caregivers tailor their prevention strategies more effectively. It’s also vital to recognize that elopement can occur under the watch of very careful guardians; it’s a part of the disorder for some and not a reflection of parental neglect.

Step 1: Door Sensors & Alarms

One of the first lines of defense against elopement is securing the home. alert caregivers immediately if a door or window is opened. These devices can be connected to a home security system or even to a smartphone app that notifies you of any unauthorised exits from the house.

Installation Tips

Install alarms not only on doors but also on potentially accessible windows. Ensure the alarm is loud enough to hear throughout your home or that it can send an alert to your phone if you are in another part of the house or yard.  

Even better, choose a system that will notify your cell phone or an emergency monitoring center when the alarm is triggered. 

Step 2: GPS Trackers

GPS trackers can be a lifeline for a parent of a child who wanders. These devices allow for real-time location tracking, which is invaluable during an elopement incident.

Types of Trackers

There are various types of GPS trackers available, including wearables like watches, shoe inserts, and clip-ons for clothing. Choosing a device that your child is comfortable wearing and that suits your needs is crucial. 

It’s important to review the features of any GPS tracker before you buy.

Some GPS trackers simply let you see your child’s current location, while others allow you to define a geofenced zone and alert you when your child leaves that zone.  

Likewise, some trackers include a two-way speaker that allows you to talk with your child in an emergency.  

The GetSafe GPS Tracker is popular among parents of children with autism due to its features tailored for special needs.

Privacy and Safety

When using GPS trackers, it’s essential to consider privacy and security. Ensure that the data your device collects is protected and that the device itself is tamper-proof to prevent your child from removing it.

Step 3: ID Bracelets

ID bracelets are a simple yet effective tool for ensuring the safety of a child who may wander. These bracelets can include essential information such as the child’s name, parent or guardian’s contact details, and any critical medical information.

Selecting an ID Bracelet

Choose a bracelet that is comfortable, durable, and secure. It should be something that your child does not mind wearing daily. Providers like MedicAlert offer bracelets that are designed to be both functional and child-friendly.

Customizing Your Bracelet

Customize the bracelet to include specific instructions or information that might help in an emergency, such as allergy information or a note that the wearer is non-verbal if applicable.

Preventive Measures at Home and Beyond

Beyond installing specific devices, reinforcing safe behaviors is crucial. Teach safety skills to your child in a consistent, reinforcing manner. Use locks and secure potential escape routes, and maintain a routine that your child is familiar and comfortable with. Regularly update your home security measures as needed and conduct drills to ensure everyone knows what to do if an alarm sounds.

What To Do If Your Child Elopes

Despite taking extensive preventive measures, the possibility that a child with autism might elope cannot be entirely eliminated. Immediate and effective action is essential to safely locate and retrieve the child. Here’s a detailed guide on what steps to take if your child elopes:

  1. Stay Calm and Alert: The initial moments after discovering your child is missing are crucial. Try to remain calm as panic can cloud judgment and delay response efforts. Quickly gather your thoughts and move to action.
  2. Use Available Technology: If your child has a GPS tracker, immediately use it to check their current location. This information is crucial and should be shared with the search teams as soon as it is available. Keep monitoring in case the position changes.
  3. Secure the Immediate Area: Before calling for further help, quickly check your home and any nearby spaces where your child might have gone. Sometimes children hide in or around the home itself. Check small and unlikely spaces thoroughly.
  4. Inform Your Network: Contact friends, family, and neighbors who can assist in the search. The more people looking, especially those familiar to your child, the better. If possible, assign different areas for each person to search to cover ground more efficiently.
  5. Alert Authorities Promptly: As soon as you confirm that your child is missing, call 911. Provide them with all necessary information that can aid in the search. This includes your child’s full name, age, description of what they were last seen wearing, any communication abilities or special needs, and a recent photograph. It’s important to highlight that your child has autism, which might impact how they interact with strangers or respond to their name being called.
  6. Tap Social Media and Community Groups: Utilize social media platforms to alert your community about the situation. Post a recent photo and detailed description of your child, along with any information that could be pertinent to ensuring their safe return. Community groups, local businesses, and online forums can amplify your reach.
  7. Prepare for Recovery: As the search is ongoing, prepare for what to do when your child is found. They might be scared, confused, or stressed. Keep their favorite items ready to help soothe and comfort them. Also, prepare to communicate with first responders or community members who might find your child on how to approach them gently, considering their specific needs and sensitivities.
  8. Post-Incident Review: After the incident, it’s critical to analyze how and why the elopement occurred. Look into any security lapses or triggers that may have contributed to the situation. Address these issues immediately to prevent future occurrences. Additionally, consider consulting with a professional who specializes in autism care to provide further guidance and adjust your safety strategies accordingly.

By following these steps, you can be more prepared for such challenging situations and ensure a quick, calm response to safely recover your child.


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