Anecdotally, parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) report that their children often place themselves in danger by wandering off, or “eloping.” For the first time, a study has determined the frequency of these elopements in children with ASD and the impact on children and families.
The study, "Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” published in the November 2012 issue of Pediatrics (published online Oct. 8) was funded by several autism advocacy organizations and led and conducted by the Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Researchers surveyed 1,367 families with children between the ages of 4 and 17 who had been diagnosed with ASD. Nearly half – 598, or 49 percent – of the families reported that their child had attempted to elope at least once after age 4. Of those, 316 children went missing long enough to cause concern.
Greater autism severity was associated with increased elopement risk. Children eloped most commonly from their home, a store, classroom or school. Nearly half of parents said their child’s elopement was focused on an intent to go somewhere or do something, versus being confused or lost. Close calls with calamities like traffic injury or drowning are frequent, with police called in more than a third of cases.
Of parents whose children had eloped, 43 percent said the issue had prevented family members from getting a good night’s sleep, and 62 percent said their concerns had prevented family from attending or enjoying activities outside the home. For 56 percent of parents, elopement was one of the most stressful behaviors they had to cope with as caregivers of a child with ASD, and half said they received no guidance from anyone on preventing or addressing this behavior.
Until more research can be conducted to develop interventions to address elopement, study authors hope the results of the study will inform families, doctors, educators and first responders who grapple with the consequences of elopement.