Elopement is the clinical term for the behavior of running away, leaving a designated building or area, or wandering without caregiver supervision. To some extent, all children are prone to elopement at one time or another, but if it happens on a regular basis it can become a serious and ongoing safety concern. Also concerning is the prevalence of elopement among individuals diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities. For example, children with autism have been found to engage in elopement behavior at a significantly higher rate than their peers without autism (Walker & McAdam, 2014).
The purpose of elopement varies among individuals and can include escape from a location or activity that is not preferred, attempts to gain access to something or attention from someone, or because it is something the individual gets enjoyment out of on its own, regardless of when and where it happens.
If you are concerned about your child or a child you know eloping and endangering him or herself, below are some tips to help you address this issue:
- If your child already does this on a regular basis, be sure to write down information about successful and unsuccessful attempts to bolt or run away. It is helpful to note the time of day, location, what was happening at the moment, who was there, and how you responded. This may help you see patterns and will be beneficial for other professionals.
- If you feel your child’s safety is in danger from elopement, request a behavioral assessment from a trained professional, such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. This person can work with you to determine the purpose of this behavior for your child and develop a plan to eliminate it.
In the meantime, here are some ideas with links for things to consider to keep your child safe:
- Learn CPR and First Aid
- Be sure your child has a Medical ID bracelet for easy identification. If bracelets are not tolerated, Shoe ID Tags are a good alternative.
- Register him or her with the National Child Identification Program.
- If you believe your child is at a high-risk for elopement, consider Wearable GPS Tracking and Voice Monitoring devices.
- Install reliable Door and Window Locks.
- Add Door and Window Alarms/Chimes to let you know if he or she leaves your house.
- If nighttime wandering is a concern, consider installing a Bed Alarm.
- A fenced yard may prevent elopement beyond your premises. If you experience barriers to installing a fence in your neighborhood, this blog article may help.
- Communicate with your neighbors and make sure they have your contact information and understand what it looks like when your child has eloped. Others may not always know when a child has wandered.
- Inform local emergency responders and law enforcement about your child’s wandering behavior.
Teaching your child critical safety skills takes a village. Here are some ideas for developing safety skills:
- Work with your school team and any other therapists or professionals that provide care to your child to teach and PRACTICE basic safely skills such as crossing the street, responding to one’s name, asking adult permission to leave an area, and especially how to swim.
- Set aside time to PRACTICE these skills in your home and other locations your child goes.
- Develop a Family Wandering Emergency Plan and make sure everyone who cares for your child knows what to do.
Note: This piece is based on the original article written by Walker and McAdam (2014) and has been updated as of July 2017.
Walker, H. & McAdam, D. (2014). Elopement of children with autism: What we know, successful interventions, and practical tips for parents and caregivers. Retrieved from http://www.nysaba.org/Downloads/Elopement%20Article%20Final.pdf