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Autism spectrum disorder is a challenging disorder that impacts many aspects of family life. In a new study, an alarming number of children with autism are at high-risk for wandering off from their homes, schools, or stores; also known as elopement.
In a recent study, researchers surveyed families with more than 1,200 autistic children and 1,000 of their non-autistic siblings. Nearly half of the families indicated that elopement was a problem behavior. Almost 75% of autistic children eloped from their own homes, while 40% and 29% eloped from stores and schools respectively. These rates were 4 times as high as elopement rates for their non-autistic siblings. Many of the children who elope are reported missing for a little over 40 minutes.
Unlike Alzheimer’s patients who tend to wander while not knowing where they are, or what they are doing, autistic children tend to leave on a mission. Many autistic children are fascinated with water and traffic. They leave intentionally to seek out their interests. A combination of their age and disorder, autistic children have a limited sense of danger, often proving fatal. While many of the parents reported that original elopements had started as early as the age of 4, it is frequently those who are older with lower intellect, communication disabilities, and more severe autism symptoms that elope.
To make matters worse, many parents of autistic children feel they have no tools to handle the challenges of a child prone to elopement. There are few resources available to teach caregivers how to manage and prevent eloping. Elopement is generally not one of the highlighted behaviors of children with autism, but is one of the most frequent. In addition, a stigma is placed upon parents whose autistic child wanders out into traffic. In reality, there is little many parents can do to prevent the problem because of a lack of awareness that it exists.
The study emphasizes that more must be done to support parents of autistic children and to create a method to find these children when they elope, like the Amber Alert program. There are GPS trackers available, and programs like Project Lifesaver that work with families in locating missing persons. Visuals are also available such as stop signs to place on doorways, or door alarms that signal when a person is exiting the home. While some tools are available, many parents are unaware of elopement as a symptom. In addition, communities are unaware of the high-risk of elopement in autistic children. Without tools and support there is little a parent can do to prevent a child’s wandering. Luckily, researchers intend to learn more and provide answers for some very concerned parents and caregivers.
Sources: Time Healthland - http://healthland.time.com/2012/10/08/study-parents-receive-little-help-with-autistic-children-who-wander/ ABC News Health - http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Autism/wandering-common-autistic-children-thought/story?id=17407858#.UHLrh1HX7IU U.S. News/HealthDay - http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2012/10/08/nearly-half-of-children-with-autism-wander-from-safety-survey