Oct 12, 2022

Safety Skills: What can I do about my child’s wandering or elopement?

A little girl drags a chair to the front door of her home, stands up on the chair, slides open the chain lock, and is out the door and in the street in seconds. You run out and down the block to find your child at the ice cream counter at the corner market.

You’re walking with your son at the mall. Your child let’s go of your hand and turns the corner and disappears in a crowd of shoppers. Panicked, you finally find him at his favorite smoothie shop.

In both examples, these two children have a developmental disability, don’t understand basic safety skills, cannot yet understand the difference between a friend and a stranger, and have a hard time communicating their wants and needs.

For most parents, their child’s safety is their biggest concern. Anderson et al surveyed parents of children with a diagnosis of autism and found that 49% of parents reported their child had tried to elope at least once after age 4 and 26% were missing long enough to cause concern.

Your child’s safety is critical, so start now with the following tips and assemble your safety plan.

Gather Information. Organize information about your child and have it in one place for easy access. The information should include photographs, bullet points that describe your child’s likes and dislikes (triggers), sensitivities, calming techniques, and medications. Include places and familiar routes that your child likes to go when leaving home, school, the park, etc.

Secure Your Home. Take stock of your home and all exits including windows. Install child-proof locks, alarms, and window locks. Carry your keys with you if your child can navigate unlocking doors with a key. Install fencing as an additional barrier.

Teach Basic Safety Skills. Practice, practice, practice. This is so important to do several times a day. Teach your child to respond to basic directions such as stop, come here, wait. Verbally reinforce your child (i.e., That’s right! or Nice walking beside me! or similar statement) immediately after he or she performs the skill until the entire skill is learned.Teach the skill in safe areas before introducing the skill in the community, i.e., beginning at home, then move to a safe place outside in your yard before teaching the skill around the neighborhood. A parent posted a video on YouTube with some good safety skill examples called Autism and Running Away (Eloping). Role play with one another as well as with other family members and verbalize the safety steps as they are being practiced. Again, teach in safe areas before teaching in areas that are more distracting and less secure.

Teach Personal Information. Teach critical information such as your child being able to understand and answer questions regarding their name and phone number. If your child is nonverbal, teach them how to write their name and number. Another option is for the child to wear or carry an ID or wear a temporary safety tattoo or sticker.

Medical Alert Cards, Bracelets, and Temporary Tattoos: The following websites offer a variety of styles of bracelets, necklaces and charms, wallet cards, and key chains. (search temporary safety tattoo)

Teach Community Helpers. Teach your child to identify community helpers who can be identified by their uniforms and badges, such as police officers and store clerks and how to approach community helper for help. This also requires exposing your child to these helpers in the community. If your child is a teen, help him or her learn how to safely interact with police and have a conversation with police in your neighborhood about how to approach and talk with your child.

Educate the IEP Team. Is there a safety plan at school? Meet with all participants of your child’s IEP team., i.e., teacher, speech and language pathologist, school psychologist, adaptive PE teacher, principal) about your safety concerns and what is being worked on at home that also applies to the school. Make sure there is a written plan.

Consult with a Specialist. Finally, if you have a child who is at risk for getting lost or wandering away, consult with a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) who can help you navigate all that has been described here and more. A child elopes for different reasons, and a BCBA can come to your home and assess your child needs and what skills can be taught so that it is less likely that your child will elope. Read more about Inizio and how we can help.

See below for research articles and additional information:

Autism Society. Focus on Safety: Keeping Individuals on the Autism Spectrum Out of Harm’s Way

Occurrence and family impact of elopement in children with autism spectrum disorders. Anderson C, Law JK, Daniels A, Rice C, Mandell DS, Hagopian L, Law PA. Pediatrics. 2012 Nov;130(5):870-7. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-0762. Epub 2012 Oct 8.

Safety First for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Stull, Anne, MA, LPA, BCBA; Ladew, Patricia. The Exceptional Parent; Boston Vol. 40, Iss. 4, (Apr 2010): 54-57.

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