Six Tips to Prevent Elopement and Wandering

9/6/2019 By Mariel Spicer, BCBA

Every parent wants to know their child is safe at all times, so elopement can be a very scary and challenging behavior. Elopement, also referred to as wandering or running away, occurs when someone leaves a safe environment or runs away from a parent or other responsible person’s care. If your child struggles with elopement, they may leave the classroom without permission, run away from adults or even exit the house when you’re not looking.

Elopement is a very common in children with autism, and it is not a result of inattentive parenting. A 2012 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 49% of children with autism had attempted to elope at least once. When a child with autism elopes, they are usually trying to communicate something they need, want, or don’t want. They may elope to escape an unwanted task or situation, go to a favorite place, or just because they want to run or explore.

Elopement is a very worrying behavior because it can put children in such dangerous situations. Children with autism may struggle with communicating their name, address, or phone number; have trouble sensing danger; or be drawn to water or traffic. Here are 6 things you can do to help prevent this dangerous behavior:

1. Understand the reason for elopement

When children elope, they are trying to communicate something. When you figure out what they are trying to say, you can help them communicate it in a safer way.

Some situations cause extra stress and make elopement more likely. Stressors are different for each child, but a few situations that commonly contribute to elopement are:

  • Unfamiliar Settings
  • Public Outings
  • Transition Periods
  • Holidays
  • Vacations

Look for patterns in what may be causing your child to wander or run away. Do they elope during a certain activity? Are they trying to escape an unwanted stimulus? After elopement attempts, make notes about what was going on before so that you can begin to see what might be causing the behavior. If you can figure out a pattern in your child’s behavior, you work on helping them find other ways to communicate and ensure that you’re on high alert when they likely to elope.

2. Teach alternative behaviors and communication

After you understand why your child is eloping, you can help them cope and communicate their feelings in a different way. Below are a few suggestions for different reasons for elopement:

  • Trying to get to a preferred location: If your child runs to get to a place they love, like the park, teach them to ask if they can go to the park. This can be taught verbally or by showing you a card with a picture of the park. If it’s not a good time to go to the park, their asking will have the opportunity to steer them toward another activity.
  • Escaping an unwanted task: If your child is trying to escape an unwanted task, like homework, you can teach them to ask you for a break or some help with what they’re working on. Unwanted tasks can’t be completely avoided, but you can help make them less stressful or break them into more manageable chunks.
  • Escaping an overwhelming stimulus: Your child may run away when they are experiencing an overwhelming stimulus. In this situation, work on teaching them coping strategies. For example, if they run away during noisy family gatherings, you might teach them to find a quiet space and listen to some of their favorite music when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Expressing strong emotions: If your child seems to be eloping to express a strong emotion, work on teaching them ways to communicate that to you or another adult. If they are verbal, encourage them to tell you when they are feeling angry or sad. Then, you can talk about how they are feeling, what caused it, and what might make them feel better. If they are nonverbal, using picture cards can help them express their feelings to you so that you can help them cope with their emotions.

3. Ask friends and family for help

Elopement can be a dangerous behavior, so don’t be afraid to ask for help when trying to prevent it. Be vocal about who is actively watching out for your child so that it is always top of mind for someone, and let people know if you need them to “tag in.”

When you’re at an event with a lot of family and friends, like a reunion or holiday, it may seem like all hands are on deck, but these situations can be overwhelming and trigger elopement behavior. Communicate with your family and friends to make sure your child’s safety is top of mind.

4. Secure your home

There are adjustments you can make to your home that will help put barriers between your child and elopement.

  • Stop signs: You can post stop signs by the door to remind your child that they must have an adult’s permission to leave. If they don’t stop completely, these signs can make your child stop for a moment, giving you a chance to intervene.
  • Deadbolts and locks: Deadbolts and other locks are another way to slow down or stop a child who is trying to leave the house without permission
  • Security systems and alarms: Installing a home security system or battery-operated alarms on doors and windows will immediately alert you if your child opens the door. If you don’t want a full home security system, you can try the Toddler Monitor, which hangs on your child’s bedroom door and sends an alert to your phone if they leave the room.
  • Fences: Putting up a fence can give you a last line of defense to keep your child from running into the road or off your property.

Although these measures may not stop your child completely, they can help slow your child down and alert you that they are trying to leave the house.

5. Teach safety skills

Part of the danger of elopement occurs when children can’t communicate important information or respond when someone says “stop.” Work with them on skills like stopping when asked and saying their name and phone number. You can also get ID bracelets, shoe tags, and temporary tattoos with your child’s information and your phone number on them. This can help ensure your child’s quick and safe return if they run away or wander. You can find bracelets on Amazon, Alert Me Bands, and Keep Me Safe ID. Keep Me Safe ID uses a QR code to provide access to the information, adding a layer of privacy. Shoe tags are available on Amazon, and temporary tattoos are available at Temporary Tattoos With a Purpose and Safety Tat.

Many children with autism are attracted to water, making elopement near bodies of water extremely dangerous. Consider putting your child in swimming lessons to cut down on the risk this behavior presents.

6. Create an emergency plan

Emergencies do happen, and it’s important to have a plan in place to help make sure your child is found quickly. Make an emergency plan that you can share with your child’s school, babysitters, and any other caregivers. Detail when to call 911, what to do when the child is found, and any other important information. And always remember to search nearby water and busy streets first, since these can pose such an immediate risk for children.

You may consider getting your child a wearable tracking device in case of emergency. These devices can allow you to track your child on your phone, cutting down on the time it takes to find them. They are available as a lanyard at Amber Alert GPS; as a watch at Adiant Mobile; and as a belt, shirt, or pouch at AngelSense GPS.

You should also keep up-to-date information cards about your child so that you can distribute it in case of emergency. You can give these to trusted neighbors, caregivers, first responders, and anyone else necessary if your child wanders. This card can include things like:

  • Child’s name
  • Picture
  • Physical description
  • Any applicable tracking information
  • Emergency contact
  • Necessary medical information
  • Calming methods
  • Favorite places
  • Favorite things
  • Don’ts (ex: touching, shouting, etc.)

Remember, elopement can be a very dangerous behavior, so prevention is key in ensuring your child’s safety. These tips can help you find ways to prevent it, but we also recommend working with a professional like a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to help reduce the behavior.

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