A Special Needs Guide to Wandering and ElopementFor most people, the word “elopement” conjures up the image of lovers running away to get married. For the rest of us, it means something terrifying: a cherished family member with limited communication skills wandering or running away in unsafe circumstances. Because of the risk of injury or death from elopement, families must live in a constant state of alertness to keep their loved one safe from harm. I know because my child used to be a round-the-clock escape artist. In spite of the danger, most therapists and medical professionals do not discuss the topic of wandering and elopement with families of at-risk patients. It is often difficult to identify the causes for the wandering behavior, and it’s even more difficult to provide a safe environment. So let’s explore the many causes of elopement and the real-life prevention strategies that families are using.
Medical and Behavioral CausesWandering often has a medical cause that may be treatable. Understanding the reason for the behavior is a good starting point for developing a prevention plan. Consider consulting with a neurologist or sleep specialist if you think there could be a medical cause for wandering behaviors. This is a partial list of conditions associated with wandering and elopement.
- Panic Disorder: a person may run without warning due to panic
- Sleep disorders such as REM Sleep Behavior Disorder may cause wandering while unconscious
- Disrupted sleep at night is directly correlated with daytime wandering
- Temporal lobe seizures are sometimes followed by a period of wandering in a state of clouded awareness
- Medication side effects
- Stroke or other brain injury
- Cognitive impairment
- Enjoys running or exploring
- Trying to reach a preferred location (such as a park)
- Trying to escape an anxiety-provoking situation
- Pursuing a special interest (such as watching trains, elevators or sliding doors)
- Trying to escape unwanted sensory input (such as loud noise or bright lights)