Steps to Take if You Have a Child Who Often Wanders Away

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused


By Brittany Juban, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D

One of the most frightening experiences a parent can have is discovering that a child has suddenly gone missing. Elopement (wandering away or moving from a designated area without consent) is a common concern for all parents, but those who have children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely to have this experience than parents of neurotypical children.

In a 2012 study published in Pediatrics, 49% of children with ASD were reported to have eloped at least once after age 4. Furthermore, 26% of children eloped long enough to cause parental concern and were in danger of drowning or a traffic injury.

Whether it occurs in a grocery store, out at the park, or even in your own backyard, elopement is associated with many risks including increased likelihood of injury or death. In fact, 91% of total deaths of children (up to 14 years old) with ASD in the United States between 2009 and 2011 were from accidental downing after the child had eloped (Interactive Autism Network, 2011). It is not surprising that more than half of parents of children with ASD surveyed reported that elopement is the most stressful behavior exhibited by their sons and daughters.

You can use the principles of applied behavior analysis, or ABA, to develop a few strategies to help you address this concerning behavior.

First, establish some safeguards.
  • If your child is likely to elope outside while at home, installing alarms or bells on the windows and doors may help to alert you and your family members if your child tries to leave the house.
  • Consider enrolling your child in a water safety class or swimming lessons. Many communities offer specialized swim classes tailored to children who may need additional supports.
  • Have your child wear a medical ID bracelet if he or she may have difficulty relaying important information to other adults or emergency responders if he or she becomes lost.
Next, create safe habits.
  • Establish a set of basic rules with your child that cover when it is appropriate to leave your home as well as how you expect him or her to behave out in the community.
  • Take the time to practice these rules with your child, and don’t forget to provide reinforcement for good behavior. For example, you might consider giving a special snack or extra screen time when your child follows the rules at the grocery store. Start with short trips that are easy to manage before working your way up to more challenging outings.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings. Take the time to scan the environment to identify exits, hazards, natural barriers, and items that might be aversive or tempting to your child. If you do this, you will be more prepared to respond quickly if necessary.
Finally, seek additional support.
  • A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) can help you to develop an intervention tailored to your child and your family’s needs. Although there are many reasons why a child might elope, the top priority is to keep him or her safe. By conducting assessments, BCBAs can help you identify the reasons why your child is eloping and how to intervene effectively. BCBAs can also help train you to use different strategies and develop an emergency procedure so you always feel prepared.

Brittany Juban, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates four schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit