Autism and Wandering: What you need to know about Elopement

A study back in 2012, confirmed what many parents of autistic children already knew.  Elopement, also known as wandering, is a terrifyingly common occurrence of children with autism.   Twice this summer already, we have heard of two little boys with autism wandering off and drowning.  We have had our own incidents with wandering (and just plain bolting away!) that have caused a ton of stress on everyone!

As a mom of two children on the spectrum, I wish I would have known more about elopement in autism.  So, to help provide that information to you, today we are going to go over autism and wandering.  We will answer what elopement is, why it happens, and steps you can do to safeguard your child with autism from wandering.

Autism and Wandering

What is Elopement?

When many people hear the word elope, they instantly think of a couple sneaking off the Vegas to get married. Elopement (especially when referring to autism) is when a person leaves an area without permission or notification which can easily put the person in a potentially dangerous situation. This can be when a child either wanders or bolts away from a safe area such as classroom, parent, or home.  As you can imagine, the combination of autism and wandering can be very dangerous mix.

Why do children with autism wander?

This is one of those questions that doesn’t have a steady answer.  According to the study done in 2012 appears online in the journal Pedatrics, these are the top 5 reasons of why children with autism wander:

  • Enjoys exploring (54%)
  • Heads for a favorite place (36%)
  • Escapes demands/anxieties (33%)
  • Pursues special topic (31%)
  • Escapes sensory discomfort (27%)

Within our home, we have two children with autism who are very different from each other.  Bean (our 9-year-old daughter) wanders due to anxiety.  When she is in a full meltdown, there is a very high chance she will bolt to escape her anxiety.  Little man ( 2-year-old son) won’t wander off when he has anxiety but will wander “just because.”  What ever catches his attention, he is bound and determined to go to it.  He is the one that worries me the most as his wandering is much less predictable.   Each child with autism is different and will have different reason/causes for wandering.

What Can I do to Stop my child with autism from wandering?

Children with Autism often wandering off.  This can be a terrifying event, whether they run off or just disappear.  Autism & Wandering: Understanding why your child may elope and what safeguards to put in place.  #autisticchildren #autismawareness

One of the first things you can do to help prevent wandering is to understand what type of wander they are (impulsive, goal focused, random, sudden runner, etc.).  Once you have done this, you will need to determine the trigger that causes them to elope. Knowing the triggers of why they wander helps greatly.

If you can avoid the trigger, you can avoid many cases of wandering or be prepared for it to happen.  Some triggers (like sudden running) is not predictable, but you can take precautions to help keep them safe.  For our children, it normally happenings during transitioning.

What precautions should I take in case my child with autism wanders off?

There are several precautionary steps you can take for if your child with autism wanders off.  Out of this entire list, the first one is most important.  Please teach your child with autism to swim.  Many children with autism are drawn to water, others can easily just run into a body of water without intending to.  Either way, knowing how to swim is the difference between life and death.

Autism and wandering unfortunately tend to go hand in hand.  Just as any other concern, educating yourself is the best preventable measure you can take.  Another great resource I have found is the Big Red Safety Toolkit from the National Autism Association.  You can download your free copy here.


Alicia Trautwein is an autism parenting coach living in Missouri. She is the creator behind The Mom Kind, a website dedicated to parenting neurodiverse families.  She is featured in the "Amazing Moms" coffee table book by Hogan Hilling & Dr. Elise Ho.  She shares her expertise along with her experience in parenting children, both with and without autism.

9 thoughts on “Autism and Wandering: What you need to know about Elopement

  1. Thank you for this post! I was a special education teacher and dealt with elopement of students too many times! It’s great to read something that can help us and their parents!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have three children on the spectrum, a 5 year old and twin 2.5 year old who just got diagnosed in July. Our youngest of the twins is a wanderer and I’m looking for ways to keep him safe!

  3. Triggers good info. Wish I knew this 20 yrs ago. Taught my son to swim very young. Young adult elopements horrible. Can’t get ANYONE (AFH places, caseworker, etc) to understand gaming addiction causes overstimulation &sensory shutdown. He runs off& violent behavior. I’m at a loss.
    Thank you

  4. The tips are very useful. Thanks. My eldest son wandered off quite often when he was younger. We are blessed that many people had helped us during this period. He had gone missing once for nearly 4 hours and the entire neighborhood went out of their way to search for him. This kind of support is very vital to a family with autistic kids (I have 2 autistic boys and another with ADHD/Dyslexia). The tags/labels helped a lot as there will know where to send him back. My son is now 16 years old and is managing reasonably well. Believe in yourself and the child, and goodness of people.

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