Running or wandering away from caregivers is common in autistic children and adults. The first step toward safety is creating a good plan for it.

When many people think of the term “elope,” the first thought that may come to mind is running off to get married. But for people with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities, elopement is a different type of behavior — and it can place someone at risk of serious harm.

This article explains more about what elopement means in autism, including some examples of elopement and guidance for creating a safety plan to prevent autistic elopement.

Elopement, also known as wandering, refers to a situation in which someone with a disability wanders away from a safe area or person, possibly putting themselves at risk of harm. Elopement is a common behavior in children with developmental disabilities, especially autism.

One of the reasons why elopement may lead to harm is that many autistic children can experience difficulties with skills like communication and learning.

An autistic child who elopes away from a parent or caregiver might have difficulty communicating who they are or where they’ve come from. Also, people attempting to help may not understand why the child experiences challenges communicating their needs.

When an autistic child elopes, they may also wander into a situation they may not know can put them at risk of serious harm. Depending on the specifics of their disability, it can be difficult for them to understand why situations like heavy traffic and deep water can harm them.

What are some examples of elopement behavior?

One example of elopement is an autistic child leaving the house while their parents are busy with chores because they want to visit a favorite location near their home.

Another example might include an autistic child running away from caregivers or teachers while at school because they feel sensory overload and want to go somewhere quieter.

According to a 2012 study, several reasons why autistic children may elope include:

  • enjoying the act of exploring or running
  • attempting to go to a location they enjoy
  • trying to leave a stressful or anxious situation
  • wanting to go somewhere with less sensory input
  • going to pursue a specific object or interest

Research shows elopement is common in autism — especially in autistic children and those with more severe learning disabilities.

The 2012 study above explored the frequency of instances of elopement in families with autistic children.

According to the study, 49% of families reported having an autistic child who attempted to elope at least once. These elopements often put the children at risk of harm. Specifically, 65% of children who had eloped were at risk of a traffic injury, while another 24% were at risk of drowning.

A study from 2016 also explored the frequency of elopement in children with developmental disabilities. The study found that more than 26% of children with autism and/or cognitive impairment had attempted to elope in the previous year.

Elopement can be a significant source of stress for parents and caregivers of autistic kids, which is why it’s important to create a safety plan for when it happens.

If you’re the parent of an autistic child at risk of elopement, consider the following when creating your safety plan:

  • Reinforce your child’s safe zone: Encourage your child to know where caregivers and safe zones are and to stay near them for their own safety.
  • Teach them what to do when they’re lost: If possible, teach them about safety skills and other important information, like their full name and address or how to call the police. Practice with them so they’ll feel confident in how to find you if they need to.
  • Use locks, signs, and other tools: A 2019 study showed that many families with autistic children may benefit from taking various steps to prevent elopement. Some of the most common steps are using tools like locks, alarms, visual signs, and tracking devices.
  • Check in with your child frequently: Checking in with your child often helps nurture communication between you and allows you to keep a closer eye on them. Check-ins also offer the chance to address possible situations that may lead to elopement before elopement occurs.
  • Have an emergency plan ready: If your child elopes, it’s important to follow any emergency plan set in place right away. Search the area, alert your neighbors, get law enforcement involved, and have your child’s medical information ready.

Safety plans aren’t a one-size-fits-all approach, so you may need to adjust occasionally. Having separate safety plans for home, school, and any other places where your child frequently spends time can also be helpful.

Elopement in autism refers to a behavior in which an autistic person, usually a child, wanders away from the safety of a parent or caregiver. Elopement may lead to harm for autistic children, especially those who experience difficulties with social understanding and communication.

If you’re the parent of an autistic child, consider drafting up a safety plan for your family. Safety plans are one of the great tools that parents and caregivers can use to prevent and address elopement in autistic children.