Autism and Eloping: What it is, Why Children on the Spectrum Are Prone to It, and How to Minimize the Risks

Today, as my husband and I stood in the garage about to put our 5-year-old son in his stroller for a walk, he did something he never had before, but something I’d been terrified he eventually might.

Without warning, he darted out of the garage, across the street, and began sprinting to our community’s entrance. At first, I had no idea in which direction he went, but I knew I had to act quickly. I scanned the street and saw his little body running as if he were about the score the winning goal in a soccer game. I ran after him as if his life depended on it because I knew it did. My son is autistic, and he doesn’t recognize danger, such as traffic, nor does he exhibit the emotion of fear in any way.

What is Eloping?

Children on the Autism Spectrum are prone to eloping, which is leaving a safe and supervised environment for a potentially unsafe and unsupervised environment. Because many autistic children share a muted response to fear and an inability to recognize potential dangers, they are more prone to accidental drowning and traffic-related injuries and fatalities than their neuro-typical peers.

Autism Eloping Facts

To put into perspective how serious an issue eloping is for families with an autistic loved one, here are some alarming statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Autism Association.

  • 49% of children with autism will elope
  • 35% will attempt to elope at least once per week
  • More than 1/3 of children who elope are not able to communicate their name, address or phone number
  • Accidental drowning accounts for 90% of eloping fatalities
  • 42% of autism-related eloping involving a child aged nine or younger ends in death

Why Do Children With Autism Elope?

As with most behaviors in children on the autism spectrum, eloping serves a function, typically either to gain or avoid something.

Eloping to Gain

As an attempt to gain something, such as attention, a child may elope because they enjoy being chased by a caregiver. It may seem like a game to them, as in the case with my son. Perhaps they enjoy the feeling of running and being outdoors. In some instances, an autistic child may see something they want and leave a safe environment to pursue it, such as seeing a tricycle out of a window at a neighbor’s house. 

Eloping to Avoid

As an attempt to avoid something, such as sensory overload, the eloping may be in response to times which the child feels overstimulated. This may include family gatherings such as holidays and birthdays, vacations, or being in unfamiliar settings. Children eloping to escape over stimulation may look for places to hide, making it even more difficult for them to be found quickly.

How to Minimize the Risks

  • Never leave a child with autism unsupervised.
  • Add locks to exterior doors.
  • Add alarms to exterior doors.
  • Consider at GPS tracking device for your child.
  • Alert neighbors that your child may be prone to elope.
  • Alert all caregivers such as family members, teachers, and therapists that your child may be prone to elope.
  • Attach a wearable ID to your child with their name and your contact info.
  • Ensure your child learns to swim.
  • Remain on “high alert” during transitions, family gatherings, and when in new environments.
  • Order the Big Red Safety Box from the National Autism Association for more information and tools to help prevent eloping.

If you have a child on the autism spectrum, even if they have never attempted to elope, it is essential that you still have security measures in place. You never know what your child is capable of until after it has happened. For more information, check out this video about the Big Red Safety Box.

Mother’s of children with autism have stress levels comparable to combat veterans. – University of Wisconsin

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Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 5-33! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, a freelance writer, and a special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.