This is Autism: Elopement in Children With Autism

Family picture walking together

I recently shared on my IG that I’m terrible about getting the kiddos outside. I am. It’s true. I’m trying to change that though. Not just for them but myself. I know being in the four walls of our home all day isn’t good for any of us. So… I stopped myself from the overwhelm of getting the kids ready. Now, I settle for, “Shoes on, we’re going outside”! Just as fast as I started that though, I was reminded of the terrifying reality that our family is atypical & The Little Lady is a flight risk. I was reminded that “This is Autism”. This is elopement.

The worry and reality

Wandering has been on our radar since The Little Lady was old enough to walk. She gave no regard for assumed boundaries and would walk right off the porch if I didn’t stop her. It wasn’t long before I stopped doing the mommy meet ups at the playground either. It just wasn’t a safe place for The Little Lady and spending my time making sure she didn’t bolt for the road while the other kids played in the play area and the moms chatted only highlighted the isolation of having a child with the needs ours had.

In the years following, every time we’ve left the house all together we were aware of The Little Lady’s increased risk of elopement. I babywore her every. single. time. until she was over 4. She went from the car to my back. If there was a cart, I carried her until we got to it… I did not put her down unsecured. Holding her hand wasn’t sufficient. We avoided places with large crowds. We got a special wrist band for her to wear that had our phone numbers and information, like being ‘“non-verbal”, that would help someone if they found her. At 5 when she outgrew store carts and The Mister joined the ranks taking the seat in the cart, we got a “wrist leash” for her to walk alongside us. Things I never thought about or worried about with The Oldest being neurotypical.

alert me bands are fantastic if you have a special needs kiddo

The reality is, a 2012 study published in Pediatrics found that almost 50% of autism families have experienced their ASD child attempting to wander/run/elope from a safe place. These aren’t toddlers you’re having to keep an eye on, these are school aged children. These are children who are often non-verbal and can’t even tell you their name muchless that they need help. Most of these children will find themselves in dangerous situations with traffic or water, too many will not make it home. This is elopement.

Autism Elopement Facts

Find more safety info at National Autism Association

Going Outside

For years we spent most of our time inside because our backyard didn’t have a fence. I chased The Little Lady constantly to keep her near our house when we did go out. If I turned to see something else for a second I often found myself trying to run full speed to catch up to her before she made it through the neighbors yard to the street! (She’s always been incredibly strong & very fast). It was exhausting and anxiety filled to say the least.

Thankfully, but the time The Mister came along she was starting to understand the boundaries of our yard and wouldn’t just *run* the whole time we were outside. We were able to go out more often but still had to stay mindful and watchful to make sure she didn’t wander.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago….

Our (now) old house has a train track that runs directly behind it. Almost daily we have at least one train that comes through and more often than not it will blow its horn as it passes us. I was outside with the kiddos when a train came by. Both froze, clearly afraid, as the horn blew very loudly. We went inside once the train was gone. (while it was passing The Little Lady refused to move).

Because she considerably better than I expected I didn’t think too much of it. The following week a train came by again while we were outside but this time both The Little Lady and The Mister quickly started walking toward the front of the house. I quickly scooped up The Littlest and we all walked to the front porch together. This time though, I couldn’t get The Little Lady to walk back around the back to go inside, even after the train was gone. Fortunately, the door was unlocked so we were able to go in through the front.

Then, it happened…

The following week we were outside and a train *in the distance* blew it’s horn and The Little Lady BOLTED. There I was, by myself, with The Littlest in his bouncer and The Little Lady running to the front. I quickly looked over to make sure The Littlest was okay where he was and then ran after The Little Lady. I lost sight of her before getting to the side of the house though and when I turned the corner toward the front I didn’t see her. I panicked as I ran to the porch. As I turned to the steps there she stood, wide eyed and clearly scared. I was relieved while at the same time my mind still racing in what ifs…..

What if she ran to the street instead of the porch? What if she just KEPT RUNNING?!

Thank God she stopped at the porch!

I wish I could say this has been our only experience with elopement but this week we had an even scarier moment.

This past weekend we moved in with my parents to prepare for our house to be remediated. (that’s a whole other topic). We are getting settled, overall it’s been a smooth transition. Except for…

Open door with childproof knob cover on the ground

The Little Lady got OUT of the house on her own.

This is the first time that has ever happened, but we’ve feared it for years. To say it was terrifying it an understatement!

In the time that it took me to put the diapers on for their main wash and tidy a few things on the kitchen counter she got the child proof knob cover off of the door handle, opened the door from our room to outside, and left the safety of our (now) home. (The door knob was one of those that opens even if locked. It has since been changed).

As I came around the corner from the kitchen to our room I saw the knob cover on the ground and the door open. I shouted, “OH MY GOSH” and ran outside! Both her and The Mister were outside. Unlike the neurotypical child that was running around the driveway and yard (albeit somewhat in the street) The Little Lady was ACROSS the street playing with some toys the neighbors had out on the side of their house.

Again, the what ifs… What if there weren’t toys there? What if she just kept walking? What if a car was coming when she crossed the street?!

As I ran to her, she looked at me like she didn’t understand why I was panicked. Because she didn’t. She wanted out of the house and didn’t see any danger in it.

In all my years of parenting

I can say that few things have given me as much anxiety as thinking about elopement. The Little Lady “getting away”.. We’ve made so many safeguards to make sure that doesn’t happen but it feels like it could never be enough. She’s not a toddler, she is a school aged child. She is tactile defensive and is very wary of those she doesn’t know.  And, despite lots of progress in her speech, she still would be considered non-verbal. She is not conversational, even with us. She won’t appropriately answer a question, usually just repeating the question you asked… if she answers at all. She can’t tell you her name, how old she is, or where she lives. Nothing. She is more likely to dart in the street than to let someone help her.

This is elopement.

This is Autism.


Disclaimer for Judgy McJudgerson

Now, I feel zero need to explain or defend myself. I do however want to take a minute to bring home the reality of Autism for so many families. The Little Lady is not our only child. I’ve been a parent for 15, going on 16, years. The incidences we have to prepare for with her over our other three kids is night and day. The vigilance an Autistic child often requires is so much more than a neurotypical child.

Almost half of children on the spectrum will NEVER speak (our Little Lady doesn’t even fall into this because she *does* have speech… how many of that 60% who “do speak” are like HER?) and, as shared above, basically half of children on the spectrum have attempted elopement. This is not your every day child wandering into the neighbors yard. This is a child unable to calculate danger, communicate for help, and will likely seek out something like water despite not being able to swim. So often we hear the mantra, “I’d rather have a child with Autism…”. Let me tell you, what I’ve shared here today IS what having a child with Autism is like. Until you are living this, you really have no idea what “I’d rather…” truly means.


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