HealthDay News — Nearly half of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) wander away, with a considerable proportion facing physical danger, researchers found.

About one-quarter of children who eloped, 26%, were missing for a long enough period to trigger concern, 65% were in danger of a traffic injury and 24% were in danger of drowning, Connie Anderson, PhD, of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, and colleagues reported in Pediatrics.

Autism severity correlated with elopement risk, with the risk for wandering increasing 9% for every 10-point increase  on the Social Responsiveness Scale T score (relative risk=1.09). Across all ages, the rates of elopement were significantly lower among unaffected siblings compared with children with ASD, and may help explain higher mortality observed among people with ASD compared with the general population.

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“These results highlight the urgent need to develop interventions to reduce the risk of elopement, to support families coping with this issue, and to train child care professionals, educators, and first responders who are often involved when elopements occur,” the researchers wrote.

They utilized online questionnaires administered through the Interactive Autism Network online research database and registry to assess information on elopement frequency and associated characteristics and consequences for 1,218 children with ASD and 1,076 of their siblings without ASD.

Half of the affected children had autism, another 19% had Asperger disorder and the rest had other ASDs. Total prevalence of having wandered off once after the age of 4 was 49%.

Compared with their siblings with ASDs, children without an ASD wandered off far less frequently, the researchers found: 11% vs. 46% among children aged 4 to 7 years, and 1% vs. 27% among those aged 8 to 11 years.

The most common location that children with ASDs wandered away from was home (74%), followed by stores and schools (40% and 29%, respectively).

Among parents whose children eloped, 43% reported that it kept them from sleeping well at night, and 62% said it kept the family from enjoying activities away from home.

“Parents report high levels of stress and little support as they cope with elopement,” the researchers wrote. “Research further characterizing the behavior and developing and refining interventions to address elopement is urgently needed.”

  1. Anderson C et al. Pediatrics. 2012; doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-0762.