Wandering & Elopement

What is Wandering or Elopement?

These are interchangeable terms used to describe when an individual exits or wanders away from their home– or from a known adult, when out in public. Elopement isn’t always the individual running away from you at full speed; children might also hide in public settings, try to get into other people’s cars, or sneak out of their homes at night when everyone is asleep.

The issue of elopement & Autism is very serious. All you have to do is read the newspaper or watch the evening news to hear about children, adolescents, and adults with autism wandering away from home and being gone for hours or even days. Sometimes these stories have tragic endings that leave everyone wondering, “What could we have done differently to avoid this?”

Ways to Reduce Wandering & Elopement

Here are some examples of strategies you can use in your classroom, and throughout your facility, to help reduce wandering and elopement:

  • Teach specific, simple statements, like “stop” or “freeze,” that will be used for specific purposes, like personal safety. Work with each child to find words or phrases that make sense to them, and to which they will respond; some autistic or other neurodiverse children will disregard rules that don’t make sense to them but will follow rules that do without reservation. Before teaching the words you will use or the behavior you expect from them in response, explain WHY you want to teach them; discuss your reasons for each word/phrase with the child, using language they can understand. For example, you might say, “These words are like stop signs, we will use them for safety. But what happens if someone ignores it Iand doesn’t stop at the stop sign? They could get really hurt, or hurt other people. That’s why when you hear these words, you need to follow directions, just like you would at a stop sign”
  • Hang alert signs on doors that exit to the outside, or restricted areas, with clear lettering, pictures, and/or symbols. If the child can read, they might say “Stop” or “Do Not Enter.” If not, use a picture of a street stop sign, or other picture like a hand gesturing “stop.” As above, provide the child with direct, specified instruction on any sign you expect them to obey; explain why the sign is there, what it means, and what they should do when they see it. Work with the child to create signs that make sense to them; you could get creative and have the child draw a “stop monster” to use on the sign. Door signs can also be useful tools for identifying other important spaces, like bathrooms or the child’s locker/cubby

After establishing any rule or system it is important that you be consistent in how you use and enforce it; do the same thing every time, using the manner in which you first explained it to the child. Failure to do so can have serious consequences. For instance, if a child is running away from you and you yell out their name, rather than “STOP” or whatever word you practiced, the child may not understand they are supposed to stop.

Remember: What we sometimes see as a failure to behave properly, is actually a failure to communicate properly. Get on the child’s level and ask them if they need to take a break. If the child can communicate, they can learn to request a break. Particularly in public settings like festivals, malls, or outdoor events, children with ASD may elope to escape from unwanted noise or large crowds.

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