According to www.nationalautismassociation.org nearly half (49%) of all children with Autism will attempt to elope from a safe or known environment.
All children may wander away from adult supervision at one time or another. What makes this issue so much more critical for children with Autism is they may not respond to their name, they may have a low sense of danger, and they may be nonverbal. Lack of public information also makes this issue so critical. Most people don't know how to effectively communicate with children who have Autism. If an unknown adult tried to get safety information from your child (such as "Where are your parents?") would your child respond?
The word Elopement describes:
- The child leaves, bolts, or wanders away from the home or from a known adult while out in public.
Elopement isn’t always the child running away from you at full speed. I have had clients who hide under things in public, try to get into other peoples cars, or refuse to hold my hand because they want to wander.
The issue of elopement & Autism is very common. All you have to do is read the newspaper or watch the evening news to hear about children, adolescents, and adults with Autism wandering away from home and being gone for hours or even days. It can be hard to know what is motivating them to wander away from the home. Also a child with Autism is more likely to go away from people if they get lost, than towards people like a NT child would.
There’s something I see when I am out in public that I call the “special needs grip”. Its when a parent or caregiver is out with a child who has special needs, and the adult is gripping tightly onto the child’s (or teenagers) hand. I recognize it immediately, and when I see it I know that person is raising a child who has eloped in the past. I speak from experience when I say that once a child has bolted away from you in public, you are always a little bit on guard.
Just like any other behavior there are many different ways you can reduce the risk of your child wandering away from the house, or bolting away from you when you are out in public.
I explained these terms briefly in my For Related Professionals post, but for any behavior you want to manage you can intervene on the Antecedent or the Consequence. Antecedent means what happens before the behavior. Consequence means what happens after the behavior. Which approach will work best will depend on the individual who is eloping and their particular motives for wandering away. I suggest you try as many of these recommendations as you can, see what works and what doesn’t, and then end up with a few solid techniques that work in your home. I use the term “in the home”, but teachers deal with elopement too. Many children with Autism will not stay in the classroom. They inch close to the door, peek to see who is looking, and before the teacher can notice they are strolling down the hallways unsupervised. This can be a frustrating issue in the school environment, but in the home environment it goes from frustrating to frightening. It’s a little different for a child to be wandering around in school hallways, than for a child to be walking down the middle of the street miles away from home. For that reason I will just talk about elopement in public settings and the home.
The suggestions included in this post do not negate the need to conduct a full FBA to deal with consistent, ongoing elopement attempts. A FBA will reveal the reason why your child is engaging in elopement behavior.
The main techniques I will address are: Reducing Risk, Antecedent Interventions, and Consequence Interventions.
Dealing with Elopement in Public
Reducing Risk- Before you go out in public with your child, explain to them where you are going. Use simple language at their cognitive level and talk about your expectations for their behavior. Explain that they need to stay near you, may need to hold your hand, and cannot walk away from you without asking first. Teach the child to respond to their name (verbally or nonverbally), and provide praise for them staying near you in public. Plan the outing in advance, know where the exits are, roughly how crowded it will be, if its near a busy street, etc. If possible take another adult with you to help catch the child if they attempt to elope. Consider getting an ID badge or bracelet for your child, and carry a recent photo ID of your child with you at all times. If the child is verbal, teach them to respond to safety questions such as “What’s your full name”, “What’s your phone number”, and “What’s your address”.
Antecedent Interventions- This would involve changing the triggers that precede the child eloping. Some children wander away when they see an interesting object. Some children wander away because it’s loud and crowded, and they are seeking a quiet place. Pay attention to how your child acts before they attempt to elope, such as covering ears, walking very slowly behind you, staring intently at items or objects, etc. Be on the alert so you can step in when you see a trigger. Get on your child’s level and ask them if they need to take a break. If the child is verbal they can learn to request a break. If the child is nonverbal you can teach them to hand you a break card, and when they do they can have a supervised break. Particularly in public settings like festivals, malls, or outdoor concerts, children with Autism may elope to escape from noise and large crowds. Teach the child to request a supervised break, instead of just wandering off.
Consequence Interventions- This would involve changing the way you react to your child wandering away, or attempting to wander away. Some children may wander away to gain your attention. Other children may wander away to escape you. It will vary according to the child. Once you determine why they are eloping, be sure not to give them the response they are seeking. If your child bolts at the grocery store because you strike up a conversation with another shopper, then do not provide huge amounts of attention for their elopement behavior. Go get the child with minimal eye contact and language, and bring them back where the cart is. You also want to be sure to show them how to get your attention appropriately. You can teach the child to request your attention, such as tapping you or saying your name. Practice appropriate behaviors for being in public, and staying near an adult. Use praise and reinforcement.
Dealing with Elopement in the Home
Reducing Risk- Modify the home environment to make it safer. Install heavy duty deadbolt locks on the doors and windows. Install an alarm in the home, or consider security cameras. Consider placing bells or motion detectors on all doors. Talk to neighbors and explain that you have a child who wanders, and may not respond to their name. Make sure close neighbors have your contact information and a photo of your child, so if your child ever wanders into their yard they can call you immediately. If there are many people in the home (such as for a party) have at least 2 people keeping an eye on the child. Write and post house rules, and one of the rules should be that the child cannot go outside without permission. Go over the house rules regularly, using simple language the child can understand. Teach the child to respond to their name (verbally or nonverbally), and provide praise when they respond. Practice going into another room and calling the child, and provide reinforcement when they come find you. Consider getting an ID badge or bracelet for your child. If the child is verbal, teach them to respond to safety questions, such as “What’s your full name”, “What’s your phone number”, or “What’s your address”.
Antecedent Interventions- This would involve changing the triggers that precede the child eloping. Start determining the triggers for the child attempting to elope. Many children display wandering behavior in the middle of the night if they can’t sleep. Other children wander away from home if they see something interesting outside, such as the ice cream truck driving by. Once you have identified the triggers, teach your child replacement behaviors. If they wander in the middle of the night teach them to stay in bed when they can’t sleep. If they wander outside to explore interesting items teach them that they need permission first. If the child is verbal they can request permission to go outside. If the child is nonverbal, you can make an “Outside” picture card. When the child brings you the picture card, they are allowed to go outside (with supervision). Put the picture card away at night, to signify that going outside at night is not an option.
Consequence Interventions- This would involve changing the way you react to your child wandering away, or attempting to wander away. When you see the child bolt, and you catch up with them, what is your reaction? Do you yell, become angry, cry, give a lecture? If the behavior is happening regularly, your reaction may be feeding the behavior. If you yell at your child every time they begin to wander away, then that child is wandering to get your attention. Try reducing the attention you provide for elopement, and give MORE attention for when the child is near you and within your sight. Use specific praise such as “Good job playing on the front porch”. If the child steps off the porch, or tries to bolt into the street, get them back safely with minimal eye contact or language and place them on the front porch. Practice appropriate behaviors for being outside and staying near an adult using praise and reinforcement.
Below is a list of resources and safety tools that can be used with individuals with Autism who elope or are at risk to elope.
http://www.autismsafety.org/wandering.php 12 Ways to Prevent & Respond to ASD Wandering
http://www.projectlifesaver.org Wrist bands with transmitters
http://www.americanmedical-id.com Identification bracelets
http://www.radioshack.com/home/index.jsp Purchase surveillance cameras
http://www.homesecuritystore.com Fingerprint detection locks
http://policeandautism.cjb.net/avoiding.html How to alert police that you are raising a child who elopes (article written by a police officer)
http://www.awaare.org/docs/FWEP.pdf Sample of a Family Wandering Emergency Plan
https://www.safetynetbylojack.com Safety Net by Lo-Jack
http://www.amberalertgps.com Amber Alert GPS
http://www.specialtyalarms.com Child Specialty Alarms
**Quick Tip: Teaching a child to respond to their name typically means they look at you when they hear their name. If you want the child to come back to you when their name is called, you have to specifically teach that. For children who run towards the street, you can use a simple command such as "Stop" or "Freeze". If you yell out the child's name because they are running away from you, they may not understand they are supposed to halt.
I have taught children to respond to the question "Where are you?" (when out of my sight) by shouting back "Here I am" and coming to find me. Decide how you want the child to respond in an elopement situation: to look at you, stop running, come back to you, etc. Then teach the skill.