1. Health
Send to a Friend via Email

Discuss in my forum

Protecting Autistic Runaways - Share Your Experience

By August 24, 2008

When my son, Tom, was tiny he had a bad habit of simply bolting from a room whenever he was anxious or angry. It was this predilection for running - sometimes called "eloping" - which made it especially tough to include him in typical preschool classes. After all, it's one thing to adapt a lesson for a child with autism, but something quite different to leave 12 typical three-year-olds alone while racing down the hallway after a tike who's taken a hike.

While Tom's runaway ways were problemmatic in the school setting (and at malls and grocery stores), he never attempted to leave our home. In this, I've learned, we were remarkably lucky.

In just the past few months, there have been several stories of children and even adults with autism who simply walked or ran away from their homes and schools - and disappeared. In some cases, the autistic runaway was found within hours or days; in other cases the outcome was far more tragic.

It's not clear why people with autism "elope;" in some cases it may be because of anxiety or frustration - but in other cases there's no obvious reason. No matter what the cause, though, the reality is that families of "elopers" are always on edge, worried about the safety of their loved one on the autism spectrum.

Dennis Debbault is a specialist in helping members of the autism and law enforcement communities to manage safety and law enforcement issues. I interviewed Dennis for several articles; this one deals specifically with preventing, preparing for and handling autistic runaways.

Have you dealt with (or been) an autistic runaway? Can you shed any light on what sets off this dangerous behavior - or how to prepare for, manage or prevent it?

August 24, 2008 at 8:53 pm
(1) Daniela says:

In my client’s case, he left home towards a monument of our city which he loves. In many cases, kids run away because they don’t have the skills to ask or negotiate an outing. Like with any request training, it is essential that the child be given an appropriate response to request to leave the house and that this be rehearsed a lot, honored a lot – any time possible – until the skill is well established. For some of my clients who cannot speak, we keep a green card on the doors which is the first thing they see when they approach the door, and we taught them to get it and go find an adult in the house. It is like a reminder, when they go open that door, to oh, yes, find someone.

August 24, 2008 at 10:34 pm
(2) Cathy Knoll says:

Over the years, I’ve had a number of friends (children, teens, and adults) with autism who were “rabbits.” The causes for most of the runners seemed to fall in one of three categories: escape, quest, and wanderlust.

(1) ESCAPE i.e. running away from something. Some people with extreme sensory sensitivities are trying to escape certain noises, smells, or sights. Others are attempting to escape an unfamiliar place, unfamiliar people, or other anxiety producing situations. I’ve had friends bolt when they heard a siren, when fireworks exploded at a baseball game, or when they saw an unrestrained dog or cat. I’ve had friends who slipped out of the house to avoid a bath because of sensory issues that made washing their hair unpleasant or crashed out a door at his school because a favorite teacher or another student did not return that year.

A few of my friends with autism seem to enjoy the loud commotion and the chase that occurs when they bolt suddenly. The trick is to figure out if they are being mischievous, if they are seeking attention, or if they are seeking loud noises and the deep pressure of grabbing. One youngster was having a serious problem of escaping from his schoolroom or from his mom’s house. Again, some detective work revealed that the youngster loved playing chase and hide-and-seek when he visited his dad on weekends. The dad was thrilled, of course, that his son was beginning to enjoy games and that he was noticing other people. The mom and teacher had not seen this interactive, playful personality, so they were assuming he was purposefully running away from home and school.

(2) QUEST i.e. purposefully searching for or finding something. One of my students escaped frequently from school. We finally determined that he was heading for home to go to the bathroom because of his aversion to strange toilets. Another youngster escaped in a similar manner searching for his mom. Neither youngster seemed agitated or upset – just matter-of-factly took off on a quest to find something they wanted.

Several of my students bolt out the door when they hear a siren, not because they dislike sirens, but because they really enjoy watching emergency vehicles zip down the street. We finally figured out that one teen slipped out of the house when anyone in his neighborhood fired up the BBQ grill. And another took off down the street whenever he heard a lawnmower or motorcycle because he loved to watch both. We finally realized that one elementary student left the room during math class because she interpreted her teacher’s instructions literally. Nearly every day, the teacher said, “When we finish our math papers, we’ll go outside for recess.”

On a different note, one of my adult friends with Asperger’s lives independently. She “escapes success.” If she finds a job, a place to live, and support services in a community, she suddenly disappears – packing everything up in her car and moving to a different community, just to start the whole process over again.

(3) WANDERLUST i.e. just going through a door because it is there. Some bolt and others wander, but a number of my friends with autism simply go through any open door, no matter where it leads. If they see an open door at home, in the car, at school, or in a store, they are through that opening in a split second. Sometimes inattentive or distracted caregivers inadvertently encourage this behavior. But, in many cases, the individual is simply attracted to open doors. It is amazing how fast a person can be gone.

These are just a few examples of the potential causes of runaway behaviors. Much creative brainstorming and “trial-and-error” was required to come up with strategies to protect the safety and well-being of these “rabbits.”

Cathy Knoll

August 25, 2008 at 5:15 am
(3) stella waterhouse says:

One other cause may be reactive hypoglyceamia – this is often noticeable prior to a meal or even sometimes after a meal.

At this point the child loses control over his behaviour. Initially she/he may begin to get physical symptoms such as sweating profusely (and possibly taking his clothes off).

She/he may also get agitated and could then slip into fight or flight mode either provoking other children or adults or simply running off.

This can be especially difficult to cope with in children who are imaginative as when they ‘come round’ they may make up some tale to explain the ‘lost time’.

If it tends to happen before meals a snack such as a banana midway between meals may help. If after meals then the diets should be looked at to ensure it doesn’t contain too many sugary things.



August 25, 2008 at 10:35 am
(4) Fielding J. Hurst says:

This is not a chronic problem for my 7 year old with PDD-NOS, but we did lose her one terrifying time for 25 minutes and finally found her climbing a tree next door. My sister inlaw’s computer was too slow for her. She couldn’t take the dial-up and bolted. There one second, gone the next.

At home, there are too many goodies (computer, dvd, toys) and she hasn’t tried to leave. In any case, we put deadbolts on the doors and have an alarm system that beeps when the door opens.

We do sleep better knowing that she cannot get out of the house.

We also use this Ion Kids tracking device some when we are out. It’s great. If she leaves predetermined range, the base unit beeps and flashes. You can put it in FIND mode to see which direction the child went, etc. http://autismparents.net/recommended-ion-kids-tracking-device/


August 26, 2008 at 3:50 am
(5) NorwayMom says:

My oldest son has given us a couple scares, the first when he was 2-1/2 years old and simply went exploring. He didn’t go far, but he didn’t know how to answer when I yelled “Where are you?” We quickly learned to call his name and yell “Say here I am!”

Another time was when he was 6 and thought we had gone home without him, when actually we were just inside his little brother’s daycare center getting his backpack. We learned to never trust that he’d simply notice where we had gone.

I have a collection of elopement resources, including preventing elopement from school and relevant IEP goals:


I added a link to Lisa Jo’s article today. Great stuff!

August 31, 2008 at 12:24 pm
(6) Beth says:

I moderate a blog for Easter Seals, and a few months ago I posted a blog called “What do Autism Assistance Dogs do?”
Many, many readers responded with stories of how autism assistance dogs prevent their human partners from running away. If the person with autism does manage to escape, the dog can help track him or her down.

September 21, 2008 at 8:02 pm
(7) Collee says:

Where we live the power was our last sunday till 2am Monday night. Our daughter who is high functioning is very attached to her tv. We thought she was doing okay and was quite suprised by the fact of how well she seemed to be taking the fact of no tv. So we did not leave our home and stuck it out. Monday night when the lights came on my husband and I woke up to every light in the house on. As we walked around turning things off we noticed the front door was open. We thought maybe we had not closed it all the way and then we continued to turn things off and realized our daughter who is 12 was gone her shoes were gone and her bookbag we keep by the door was gone. We searched the house in case she hid when the lights came on and then outside. Then proceeded to call the local police dept. Dispatcher took all of her info and said an officer would be right out to stand and watch for him. My husband took off on foot yelling and screaming for her and nothing. Just as the officer pulled up phone rang my heart sank they found her i was scared to death. She told me she was okay and another officer would be to our home right away with her. So now we are scared to go to sleep for fear she may do this again. She told my husbands mother last evening oh no i won’t run away again at least not until I am a little bit older. But I feal like I am walking on pins and needles that I may say or do something wrong and she will leave again. We put heavy objects in front of the doors when she goes to bed at night. And we take turns sleeping but I know we can not keep this up forever. What can we do? The police told us that if she did it again that they would have no choice but to file charges the next time. She didn’t even think it was a big deal to leave and was not scared at all. It was just oh well I went for a walk.

August 21, 2009 at 8:43 pm
(8) Kristi says:

My son is now 13 and has been running away since he was 7. He tends to do it when he is stressed or overwhelmed. I asked him why he did it and he says because I feel free. All the stuff that is jumbled in my head goes away when I run. I try and prevent stressful and overwhelming situations. I don’t push him to have conversations he doesn’t want to and I have found out that when he is ready he comes to be to talk.

September 14, 2011 at 4:43 pm
(9) jerrh keith says:

comments can be directed to me j@gotohighschoolonline.com
i have an autistic 4 year old, he runs he bolts he disappears,
i bought a monkey harness for him at wal mart, and when i put it on him to make sure he didnt bolt, cops at the wal mart told me they’d arrest me if i didnt remove it… hes bolted from me at the wellington green mall, ran up the stairs, i searched everywhere thenthey took a report with the police and reported me for neglecting the child… i read someone actually tied their 4 year old to a post while they were packing a truck so he wouldnt bolt, so the DCF took the child away from the family! so what happened? he bolted with the foster parents and disappeared! so the problem is that we try to keep the child safe, its impossible without having some bozo complain not knowing the child! so you have to be quiet, low key so the nosy neighbors don’t complain, otherwise the dcf takes over the house, etc…

September 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm
(10) jerrh keith says:

i’ve had 22 complaints all unsubstantiated, never went to court but you k now i’d like to! i want to have the courts rule on this as its getting harder to control the child from bolting… and now hes into the chasing, he wants someone to chase him, he ran from me at target… we had 6 people chasing him and he was faster than all of us… laughing the whole time… its very very hard as its fun to play tag and chase me but you can’t do it unless in an enclosed area… and out of view of scary crazy nosy neighbors who want to know why how where when… instead of minding their own business…. its impossible to have an autistic nowadays let alone aNY CHILD

i had it in a theatre, he bolted into the theatre, i thought he was there and ran into a movie, so while i was checking all the theatrues, and reported it to the managers, i go outside on a lark, and 2 sets of families were chasing him behind bushes…
outside….!!!! and one burly guy said i should go to jail for ALLOWING HIM TO GO OUT IN THIS HEAT.. … like i did it on purpose, he wanted to get into a fight with me a fistfight and he wanted to call the dcf… you see, no way to win

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>
  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorders

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.