About Autism & Wandering

Wandering/elopement is the tendency for an individual to leave the safety of a responsible person’s care or safe area, which may result in potential harm or injury. This might include running off from adults at school or in the community, leaving the classroom without permission, or exiting the house when the family is not aware. This behavior is considered common and short-lived in toddlers but may persist or re-emerge in those with autism.

According to research, nearly half of children with autism are at risk for wandering away from a safe setting. Because people with autism are vulnerable to dangerous situations including drowning, traffic incidents, becoming trapped hot cars, etc., it’s important to take critical precautions and be aware that drowning fatalities remain a leading cause of wandering-related death, along with traffic injury.

Wandering/elopement is typically a form of communication, often occurring to get to something of interest or away from something bothersome, usually noise, commotion, fears/phobias, and demands. These impulses and incidents can increase with added anxiety and stress, especially if the individual has challenges with coping, calming, or regulating their emotions.

Early signs of exit-seeking behavior can start in toddlerhood. They include social/demand avoidance, moving to a different area of building or home unnoticed, bolting when upset, and seeking out water or other quiet places.

Quick Facts

  • According to a study in Pediatrics, nearly half of children with autism have a tendency to wander/bolt from safe settings
  • More than one third of children with autism who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
  • According to a study by NAA, accidental drowning accounts for 71% of lethal outcomes, followed by traffic injuries at 18%
  • Other dangers include dehydration; heat stroke; hypothermia; falls; physical restraint; encounters with strangers
  • Increased risks are associated with autism severity

Take Action in Your Home & Community

  • Download and begin using your Be REDy Booklet today.
  • Provide a copy of the Be REDy Booklet for First Responders to your local police, fire and/or sheriff’s department. Ask them to implement Reverse 911 in your county and seek assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when a child is missing.

Always Remember: If a Child or Adult with Autism is Ever Missing, Call 911 & Search Water First!

Important Free Resources from NAA

Free Safety Resources – Click to view, download or print PDF files.

Prevention Checklist

  • Secure home, outdoor gates, garage door
  • Use simple window/door alarms, baby monitors
  • Identify & Address Triggers 
  • Teach Safety/Coping & Pursue Forms of Communication 
  • Enroll in swimming lessons 
  • Provide safe-space ‘escape’ alternative, such as a tent or quiet nook within the home
  • Secure wearable identification and/or locative technology 
  • Alert relatives, school & neighbors 
  • Alert local first responders 
  • Speak with your child’s doctor 
  • Create Emergency Plan 
  • Stay extra vigilant during transitions, parties, vacations, new moves, visits, & noise/stress/ commotion


NAA Studies

NAA’s Six-Year Study: Mortality & Risk in ASD Wandering/Elopement

NAA’s 2012 White Paper: Lethal Outcomes in Autism Spectrum Disorders – Wandering/Elopement

For other important information and resources, visit our partners at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at missingkids.org

Download and print wandering resources in Spanish

Autism and Wandering Prevention Tips Flyer – Spanish
Autism and Wandering Emergency Plan – Spanish
Autism Elopmement Alert Form – Spanish