Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders

Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
PEDIATRICS (Impact Factor: 5.47). 10/2012; 130(5). DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-0762
Source: PubMed


Anecdotal reports suggest that elopement behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) increases risk of injury or death and places a major burden on families. This study assessed parent-reported elopement occurrence and associated factors among children with ASDs.

Information on elopement frequency, associated characteristics, and consequences was collected via an online questionnaire. The study sample included 1218 children with ASD and 1076 of their siblings without ASD. The association among family sociodemographic and child clinical characteristics and time to first elopement was estimated by using a Cox proportional hazards model.

Forty-nine percent (n = 598) of survey respondents reported their child with an ASD had attempted to elope at least once after age 4 years; 26% (n = 316) were missing long enough to cause concern. Of those who went missing, 24% were in danger of drowning and 65% were in danger of traffic injury. Elopement risk was associated with autism severity, increasing, on average, 9% for every 10-point increase in Social Responsiveness Scale T score (relative risk 1.09, 95% confidence interval: 1.02, 1.16). Unaffected siblings had significantly lower rates of elopement across all ages compared with children with ASD.

Nearly half of children with ASD were reported to engage in elopement behavior, with a substantial number at risk for bodily harm. These results highlight the urgent need to develop interventions to reduce the risk of elopement, to support families coping with this issue, and to train child care professionals, educators, and first responders who are often involved when elopements occur.

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    • "(Interview 18) Caretakers utilize technology to extend their limited capacity to personally supervise their children. These tools are especially useful for autistic children who wander or elope, a common behavior among autistic youth, which places these children at special risk (Anderson, et al., 2012). "
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    • "In many of the stories, it is the neighbors or complete strangers who see the child walking down the street or wandering in a store and suddenly find themselves having to retrieve the child from a dangerous situation, given that the most common locations from which children with autism 'wander' or 'elope' are their homes (74%), stores (40%), and schools (29%) (Anderson et al., 2012). Moreover, close calls with traffic injury were reported in 65% of all elopement cases in the Anderson et al. (2012) survey, suggesting that motorists may find themselves in unpredictable and terrifying situations when encountering children with autism who 'wander' in traffic areas. " What is at stake " (Kleinman, 1988, p.55) in these narratives extends beyond the children's 'wandering' and 'elopement' to the issues of social justice for the children, their families, and the larger community. "
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    ABSTRACT: 'Wandering' and 'elopement' have been identified as common in autism, affecting half of all diagnosed children ages four to ten, yet families rarely receive advice from practitioners even after the fact. Family perspectives have been missing from the literature as well as from public health and policy debates on how and when to respond to this problem. The problem of 'wandering' and 'elopement' reveals a complex intersection of larger issues encountered by families of children with autism. To consider these issues, this article examines 'wandering' and 'elopement' from the perspectives of African American mothers of children with autism, an underrepresented group in autism research. We consider how the mothers experience these behaviors and the response to these behaviors by professionals, such as service coordinators and law enforcement personnel working within various jurisdictions that become involved with the problem. We analyze the mothers' narratives about 'wandering' and 'elopement' drawn from ethnographic interviews that were collected between October 1, 2009 and August 31, 2012. These interviews were part of a larger project on disparities in autism diagnosis and services that followed a cohort of 25 four to ten-year old children. Drawing on narrative, phenomenological and interpretive traditions, we trace the mothers' developing understandings of 'wandering' and 'elopement' over time, and show how these understandings become elaborated and transformed. This article provides a nuanced, moment-to-moment and longitudinal picture of the mothers' experiences of 'wandering' and 'elopement' that enriches the cross-sectional view of large-scale surveys about the problem and contributes unique insights at the family and community levels. Implications for professional awareness, clinical practice and service provision are also suggested.
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