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Autism Basics: The Dangers of Wandering or Elopement Behavior

On October 29th, a 5-year-old boy was spotted walking alone without shoes, down a busy road in St George, Utah. The boy was non-verbal and could not tell the police who he was or where his parents were. Fortunately the officers were able to locate his parents quickly — they were visiting in a nearby neighborhood and had been searching for the boy. They explained he was autistic and had wandered from the house.

Children and adults with autism often have difficulty understanding that their behaviors may be dangerous or potentially cause them harm. One of those behaviors is known as Autism Wandering or Elopement — the child just walks away from family or caregivers. It is similar to wandering behaviors exhibited by seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Nearly half of children with autism engage in wandering behaviors according to a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network in 2011. It was also found that nearly one-third of those who wander/elope are unable to communicate their name, address, or a phone number. The National Autism Association reported that in 2009-2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% of total deaths of children with autism under the age of 14 subsequent to elopement.

There are various reasons a person with autism may wander, the most common is thought to be that they have spotted something interesting, especially water or other reflective/shiny surfaces. At other times the individual may wander because they are bothered by noise, bright lights, or other environmental discomforts.

While there is no guarantee that you can keep a child prone to wandering safe at all times, there are some definite preventative steps you can take to protect an autistic individual in your care. Two of the most basic are door locks that are out of reach and a fully-fenced yard. Out-of-reach door locks can easily be installed on front and back doors, or on any other doors that need to be secured throughout the house (basements, etc). However, having a fully-fenced yard is very important as it gives parents an added layer of security and added peace-of-mind, while providing a safe space for an elopement-prone child to enjoy playing outside.

The National Autism Association advises the general public to be aware of children in potentially dangerous situations and to call authorities immediately and monitor the child if they are near traffic or a body of water unattended. Just be aware that some autistic individuals will run away from strangers if approached, increasing their danger.

Ady’s Army was founded to help families of autistic children with very real solutions. Ady’s Barracks is a program that provides fences for the security of elopement-prone children. For more information, or to help a family with an autistic wanderer, please contact us.

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