Wandering and Elopement: Risks Factors and Strategies
Challenging behavior goes hand-in-hand with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or a developmental disability. However, no behavior is more dangerous, or more concerning for parents of special needs, than a “wandering” child.
Wandering, also known as eloping,
refers to an individual with a developmental disability attempting to leave, or successfully leaving a safe, supervised area, without permission or with the knowledge of those in charge. Wandering can occur in any setting, including homes, school environments, daycares, summer camps, residential or day programs. These frightening events can occur even with the best supervision, and no matter how vigilant a parent, sibling, grandparent, teacher, therapist, or paid caregiver might be.
According to the National Autism Association, 49% of individuals diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder engage in wandering behavior.
The more severe the disability, the greater the chance of this behavior occurring. More than one third of individuals with developmental disabilities who wander or elope are not capable of or are rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number. Many parents have reported their constant fear of their child wandering away from home prevents them from having a restful night’s sleep.
The more severe the disability, the greater the risks to these individuals.
These risks can include, but certainly are not limited to: drowning, traffic injuries, exposure, dehydration, and yes, abduction. An individual with a developmental disability will more than likely also have their first interaction with law enforcement during an incident of wandering.
There are several reasons that individuals with developmental disabilities may wander.
The most common are: to obtain physical or verbal attention from someone, to escape or avoid an aversive or over-stimulating environment, to gain access to an object or activity, or just merely to go outside.
There are a number of strategies that can be implemented in an effort to prevent wandering behavior.
- These strategies begin with the most obvious one – close supervision. As indicated earlier, however effective this may be, eventually those providing that supervision will avert their attention for a few seconds; all that is needed for an individual to engage in wandering behavior.
- Next, home/environmental modifications can be used, such as door or window alarms and specialized locks.
- Communicate within your child’s “communities” to let them know what to be aware of. For example, inform your well-known and trusted neighbors that you have a child with a developmental disability who wanders or elopes and provide them with your phone number.
- Also, some communities have a ‘Special Needs Registry’ with the 911 Call Center where you can register your child. In the event your child does exit a safe environment unsupervised, 911 can facilitate a search and rescue quickly.
- Building your child’s skills related to managing this behavior can be key. Skills like being able to communicate the desire to go outside, teaching the individual to respond to their name, or responding appropriately to the demand, STOP or NO.
- Community education and alliances with law enforcement is also important. There are two tracking devices which can be beneficial in locating your child in the unfortunate event he or she is successful in leaving the home or school.
– Some examples of devices that use a Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are: AngelSense; JioBit; and Verizon’s GizmoWatch. There are also BluTooth devices available: My Buddy Tag; Tile; and the Chip from Chipolo. Some of the GPS devices have the ability to work with your smart phone, as do the BluTooth devices. Note: If the signal to the satellite is blocked, this device will not be useful in alerting searchers to the individual’s location.
– There are devices that use radio frequencies to locate an individual who has gone missing. The individual wears a radio frequency emitting bracelet, and in the event the individual wanders or elopes, law enforcement can locate the individual using the unique radio frequency assigned to that device, or person. Project Lifesaver International is the leader in the field and is active in many communities around the country. More information can be obtained by visiting their website, https://projectlifesaver.org/.
ABOUT AUTHOR: Cathy Allore, M.Ed Clinical Support Specialist
Cathy graduated from FAU with a Master’s Degree in Special Education. She has worked in both Martin and St. Lucie County Schools in Special education classrooms; started and ran a special needs summer camp program in Martin County, and has a vast amount of experience in transition and public benefits.