What Is Child Elopement? The ASD Behavior Explained

Child elopement occurs when a child runs or wanders away from their parent or caregivers. The behavior is commonly seen in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Kaeli Compton / TikTok

There’s a new parenting term going viral on TikTok, warning parents of the dangerous child behavior (if not monitored) known as child elopement. The videos are bringing awareness to parents about child elopement, elopement behaviors, and the risks involved with a child who partakes in elopement — as well as letting parents know what they can do about it to keep everyone safe.

What is child elopement?

Child elopement occurs when a child runs or wanders away from caregivers or secure locations suddenly and without warning. The behavior is most common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). If not approached properly, elopement can be a traumatic experience for the child and for caregivers.

TikTok mom Kaeli Compton revealed that she is passionate about raising awareness when it comes to child elopement because her son, who is high support needs, elopes.

“If you don’t know what eloping is, it is when a child takes off with zero hesitation and no warning and they will take off into the street anywhere,” she explains.

“So, a lot of times my husband and I will not go to parks, pools, lakes, things like that, that are open without one another because we not only have our son’s safety to look after, but our daughter’s safety to look after, and we cannot always be in two places at once as much as we try to.”

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She explains that going out to open public spaces where things that might normally not make a parent be put on high alert is an added stressor for a parent of a child who elopes.

“Our heads are on a swivel. We can never ever ever let our guard down, and this is just so important to know,” she explains.

“And so this is just important to know if your friends with a ‘support needs’ family. Please hold space for us. If we say no to things, this is sometimes why.”

She also reiterates that her son’s tendency to elope is not his fault. He has a disability and taking the proactive measures to manage her son’s elopement is how she and her husband “show up” for their son. Period.

Why do children with autism elope?

Children with ASD are more commonly known to engage in the behavior of child elopement. Some children elope to seek out a want or a need (such as playing on a particular piece of park equipment) while others may suddenly bound trying to avoid a stressful environment.

The CDC suggested that some children elope because they just enjoy running and exploring new places. While child elopement may be common in children with ASD (one survey found about half of children and youth with ASD were reported to wander), running and wandering can be seen in all sorts of kids — and it ca be dangerous. That same survey found that 25% of children who eloped were missing long enough to cause concern and were most commonly in danger of drowning or traffic injury.

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How to prevent a child elopement risk

Parents, teacher, and other caregivers of children who elope can take certain proactive measures to stop danger before it starts. First, like Compton said, keep your head on a swivel. Monitor your child frequently. Practice positive reinforcement, giving frequent praise and/or rewards when your child doesn’t elope.

Popular TikTok user KC Davis, who has a child who elopes, posted a helpful TikTok with safety products she uses in her home to help prevent elopement and keep her kids safe.

She recommends flip locks for doors, ID bracelets, a GPS tracker, applying for disability parking, and a wagon with high sides to keep kids contained.

What to do if your child elopes

Ally Lovejoy, M.S. Special Education, recommends a few different tips for what to do if your child or student elopes. First, if you can, have someone there for backup. Like Compton said in her TikTok video, she has her husband there for support due to child elopement risk.

Lovejoy recommends the same strategy.

“Number one, make sure that you have backup. You should not be the only one following or chasing after a student. We’ll call for admin, a special education teacher, counselor, whoever. Realistically, you should have a plan for this of who’s going to be called and it should be the same people every time,” she says.

Lovejoy also recommends that, during a moment of elopement, go against your instincts. That’s right — don’t do the innate, natural thing when your kid or student is running away.

Don’t chase after them.

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“Make sure you are not running after the child. Keep enough proximity to make sure that they are safe but don’t chase them. This could either stress them out more and if the student happens to be seeking attention, it just reinforces it,” she explains.

She also recommends creating a “safe space” for kids to retreat to when they get that urge to run. Trying to have open and honest communication can curb elopement and make for a safer environment.

These moms, teachers, and advocates are doing important work by bringing increased community awareness and education to child elopement. The more people who know about the behavior, the more can be done to help in the case of elopement and individuals with ASD.