Elopement and Wandering: Keeping Your Family Safe

October 12, 2022

boy exiting building

Elopement and wandering are frightening and unsafe behaviors. Individuals with autism who wander from their homes can experience anxiety and trauma and can face dangerous, life-threatening situations. The family of a missing person with autism can undergo tremendous panic and strain.

Families who worry for the safety of a missing loved one with autism have good reason to fear. In 2008, a nine-year old boy with autism, Kevin Curtis Wills, wandered from his home and drowned in Racoon River outside of Des Moines, Iowa. Six years later, Avonte Oquendo, a fourteen-year-old with autism wandered from his New York City school and drowned in the East River. These two young men were honored and remembered in 2018 with Kevin and Avonte’s Law, a Federal law that provides funding for Missing Patient Alert Programs.

However, there are many stories of elopement or wandering that end differently. Recently, a community in New Jersey breathed a collective sigh of relief when a Sayreville, NJ man was found after being missing for nearly a week.

While there will never be a way to prevent every tragedy, we offer the following tactics, tools and resources to increase the safety of an individual with autism before an elopement event takes place and find them rapidly once they have gone missing.


  • Safeguard your home. Consider putting dead bolts up high on all doors leading to the outside and installing window guards to prevent escape or dangerous falls.
  • Inform your neighbors. Sometimes an individual may wander into a neighbor’s yard or enter a neighbor’s house, even in the middle of the night. Alerting neighbors can enlist them as another set of eyes if a loved one goes missing and can avoid potentially dangerous conflicts if they mistake the individual for an intruder.
  • Introduce your family to the police. Pay a visit to the local police station and inform them that your family member with autism elopes. Considering sharing a picture of your family member, along with a list of places, objects, or experiences they seek. Doing so can help everyone react more quickly in case the unfortunate does happen. If they do not have a protocol for missing individuals with autism, consider sharing a copy of this sample Search Protocol and Questionnaire for First Responders.
  • Obtain a wandering diagnosis. If your family member has autism, considering asking their pediatrician or primary care provider if a secondary diagnosis of wandering (ICD-10-CM code Z91.83) might be appropriate. A wandering diagnosis may help a family secure funds for safety measures, such as tracking devices, and home modifications as medically necessary durable medical equipment. Make sure to check with your insurance carrier about the extent of your plan’s coverage before you make any purchases you’d like reimbursed.
  • Work with your school to address the issue. For school-aged children, parents can work with the child study team to develop a comprehensive written plan to address issues of elopement. This written plan should include a Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plan. The Functional Behavior Assessment can help to answer why the elopement occurs and the Behavior Intervention Plan can teach replacement skills instead of eloping.

What to Do When Your Family Member Elopes

If a person with autism goes missing or wanders, families and caregivers should call local authorities or 911 immediately.

When contacting 911, or interacting with a first responder, be ready to provide the following materials and information:

  • A recent picture of the missing person and/or their current physical description
  • What clothing they were wearing when they eloped
  • The location where they were last seen
  • Any special medical needs and a description of their overall health/physical condition
  • Whether they are wearing location tracking technology and how it tracks their location
  • A list of the individual’s sensory or behavioral triggers
  • Whether the individual is attracted to a particularly dangerous location, thing, or phenomenon (bodies of water, highways, flashing lights, airports, construction sites)

It is a common misconception that police require a person to be missing for 24 hours before they will accept a missing persons report. That is not the case. Time is of the essence when looking for a missing individual with autism. Call 911 or your local emergency services department immediately.

Safety Products and Resources

Many products are available to families who are raising a child who elopes. These range from alarms that indicate when a door is opened, to identification bracelets to tracking devices.

Apps / Tracking Devices

For safety and tracking resources, browse Autism New Jersey’s referral database.

Check out the following popular products / services.

Websites / Training

For More Information

For more information about addressing elopement as part of an Individualized Educational Program, or for help choosing a tracking device for your loved one, please call us at 800.4.AUTISM.

First Responders: Please call 800.4.AUTISM for training resources.

If a person with autism goes missing or wanders, families and caregivers should call local authorities or 911 immediately.


Published:  11/15/2013
Updated: 10/10/2022