When Tammi Larsen saw her 11-year-old son, Ryan, off to school on May 17, 2021, she never imagined it could be the last time she ever saw him. Elopement, or wandering off without permission, was a common behavior for Ryan, who is on the autism spectrum. The Nebraska boy was usually gone for a few hours and then would either come home or be found in one of his “hiding” places. But May 17 was different.
That day, Ryan walked out of his elementary school during a passing period, never to be seen again. More than a year later, police, FBI officials, Ryan’s family and his entire community are still searching for Ryan, praying he’s alive somewhere. Ryan’s case is extreme—however, elopement is a serious and dangerous issue for many families.
A Quick Getaway
Elopement can happen very quickly and even when your child is under constant supervision. That’s something Burleson mom Faten Awde knows all too well.
Awde’s daughter Maya, now 10, was officially diagnosed with autism and a mixed receptive-expressive language disorder at age 3. But Awde knew something was off much earlier, when Maya began walking and running at just 10 months old. Maya’s behaviors were so much different than her older sister’s were at the same age.
“Maya was fast and had no fear,” explains Awde. “She couldn’t sit still and quickly learned to be an escape artist. She had to be in a stroller anytime we were in public because if there was any kind of open space, she would just run and run.”
For Maya, eloping was a form of play. And like most children, she had no awareness of how dangerous it could be. While Maya’s wandering was never as serious as Ryan’s, Awde will never forget the time in 2017 she thought she’d lost Maya for good.
“We had just gotten home from therapy,” shares Awde. “Typically, I would unstrap Maya and carry her inside to keep her from escaping. But I was pregnant with Maya’s younger sister and too far along to carry Maya.”
Before Awde could stop her, Maya took off, running as fast as she could across their 10-acre property. Awde ran after her but couldn’t keep up. Maya reached the edge of their land and kept on going. “She was running through really tall grass and even managed to get through a barbed wire fence,” says Awde. “I made it to the fence but my shorts got stuck. As I was working to rip them away, I completely lost sight of her.”
Fortunately, a police officer lived nearby. Awde knocked on the door, and the officer was able to locate Maya. “I’ve never been so relieved in my life,” Awde recalls.
Focus on Why They Run
Awde is far from alone. A study cited by the CDC showed that about half of kids and young adults with autism demonstrate this behavior. And 25% of those children were missing long enough to generate concern and experience the risk of drowning or a traffic injury.
While it’s commonly seen in children with autism, elopement also occurs in children with Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, anxiety and ADHD. When it comes to addressing elopement, “it’s not the diagnosis that truly matters,” explains Carin Renee Shearer, Ph.D., director of special needs education for Lewisville Independent School District and owner of TDES, an applied behavioral analysis (ABA) consulting firm. “The key is focusing on why the child is eloping.”
There are many reasons the behavior could be happening. Eloping could be about anxiety, fear or avoiding a particular task or environment (school, eating, loud sounds, bright lights, too many people, etc.). The child might be frustrated and lack the ability to communicate how they feel. In other cases, the child could spot a preferred activity or object (slides, trains, water, an animal they want to pet, and so on). They may just consider elopement a game or think they’re being funny.
“If you’re struggling to figure out your child’s triggers, keep a log of when and where the eloping occurs to look for patterns,” suggests Marilyn Rankin, owner of Carter Speech Therapy in Fort Worth.
Here’s why the “why” is so critical: The reason behind your child’s elopement will help identify the right therapy or mix of therapies to address it. (Of course, in the meantime, you’ll want to take precautions to keep your child safe—check out the sidebar for advice.)
Behavior analysts, speech therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists are all equipped to help with elopement. ABA is often the go-to therapy because of its regimented and measurable approach to reducing undesirable behaviors. Speech therapy is also helpful because it can help build your child’s communication skills.
“A child who can say, ‘I want to play chase,’ or ‘I feel mad’ no longer needs to express these internal thoughts by eloping,” explains Rankin. “As a child develops more effective communication skills, their behavior tends to improve.”
In Maya’s case, it took years of ABA, speech therapy and occupational therapy before her mom no longer worried she would elope. But it’s important to remember that what works for one child might not work for yours.
“Every child is different,” notes Shearer. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. You have to meet the child where they’re at and set realistic goals for their behavior plan.”
Make a Safety Plan
- Maintain an up-to-date photo and description of your child.
- Get an ID kit from the National Child Identification Registry (com), which includes an inkless fingerprint card and DNA collection; you keep these items at home and provide to law enforcement if necessary.
- Use extra locking devices at home and in the car.
- Take note of your child’s common hiding places.
- Purchase a GPS device such as Jiobit (com) and an ID bracelet.
- Practice safety skills: crossing streets, understanding the word “Stop,” saying one’s name and learning to swim. Books such as I Can Be Safe by Pat Thomas and Lesley Harker are good tools.
- Educate neighbors on your child’s tendencies and make sure they have your contact info.
- Work with school officials and make sure they have elopement protocols in place.
- Look into a therapy dog. Kids who elope can be tethered to their dog, reducing the chances they can get away.