Having a child wander or run away from home is a nightmare scenario for any parent. The stress of this fear is significantly magnified for parents of children with autism, as the behavior is highly common for them, making your child highly at risk of danger. Understanding why this behavior happens and measures for preventing it are crucial for families ensuring the protection of their child with autism, which is why we’ve created a guide on autism elopement: what it is, it’s signs, and how to prevent it from happening. We hope this will help keep your fears at bay and your child safe at home.
What is Elopement in Autism?
Simply put, elopement is when a child wanders out or runs away from home or a caregiving facility. Studies have shown that nearly half of children with autism will attempt to elope at some point while at home or under specialized care. This means that as parents, familiarity with the concept and being watchful for signs of elopement in your child are paramount for their long-term safety.
Why do Children with Autism Elope?
It is often hard to ascribe intent to autism elopement cases. More often than not, parents report that their child with autism elopes due to exploring, curiosity, escaping sensory stimulation, or even maladaptive behavior. Such behaviors can also be linked to self harm in children with autism.
Because children with autism often have trouble expressing their feelings to other people, it is crucial to look for patterns that might contribute to elopement risk. Observe the environment your child eloped from: think about their demeanor or behaviors prior or during their time in the environment, and gauge their responses to returning to it. We advocate attempting to communicate with your child about their feelings despite the difficulty for them to typically do so; after all, every child is unique and may supply their reasoning in a way that better informs you for the next time your child is in a similar environment.
Read More: What is an Extinction Burst?
Signs of Elopement Risk in Children with Autism
Elopement is a tricky issue because it can be extremely dangerous the first time it happens, and parents or caretakers are often unprepared for it. However, by understanding what might prompt a flight risk for children in general, you may begin to notice signs in your child. These warning signs may include:
- Unfamiliar Settings: New schools, a vacation, or public outings can trigger discomfort in children with autism. Watch how your child reacts when they are engaging with new environments, and be sure to let them know you are there to help them should they feel uncomfortable.
- Sensitivity to Stimuli: Bright lights, loud noises, or even touching others can be highly off-putting for your child. If they are having trouble communicating to resolve the problem, it may give them reason to elope.
- Curiosity: It’s not all stress-reactions that cause a child to wander off. After all, even neurotypical children will wander off out of curiosity of something that catches their interest, and they’re likely unaware of what they are doing or the danger of it.
- Fixation on a Thing or Place: Many children, including those with autism, tend to fixate on particular activities or items. If a fixed interest is not satisfied at home, they may try to leave in order to find it themselves.
Most signs of elopement in a child with autism will be based on a reaction to an environment or stimulus. While it is difficult to gauge how serious these signs are if your child has not yet attempted to elope, we always urge taking the proper precautions and communication patterns for preventing it from happening.
What to do if your Child with Autism Elopes?
If your child with autism elopes, it’s certainly an emergency. However, if you have a good understanding of your child’s habits, their goals in elopement, and a proper support system in the community you live in, it will help protect your child immensely in the case they do wander off.
We recommend having security and tracking technology – if your child has a smartphone, the “find my phone” feature can be a literal lifesaver in elopement cases. If this isn’t available to you, immediately reach out to neighbors, friends, educators, and eventually the police if necessary. No time should be wasted.
We all know how terrifying it is, even for a moment, to think that our child is missing; luckily, we can take preventative and preparatory measures to mitigate the risk of elopement or adverse effects should it happen.
6 Elopement Prevention Methods for Children with Autism
While your child wandering off can seem random, these six strategies will help prevent them from eloping, or at least significantly help you if they do:
1. Use Mobile Security and Tracking Methods: If your child has a phone, use apps such as “find my iPhone” or similar features your particular phone brand offers. Make sure that their phone is waterproof, and provide a second tracking device if possible.
2. Have a Home Security System: An alarm system that beeps or buzzes every time a window or door opens is a great measure for elopement prevention. Not only will the noise indicate that these are substantial barriers to your child, but they are also functional for tracking.
3. Have a Support System Plan: Working out points of communication with friends, relatives, educators, and clinicians is a great way to prevent your child from wandering far. This information is also extremely important to include in an IEP if your child is at risk for eloping from an educational setting.
4. Teach Your Child to Swim: One of the leading causes of death following elopement in children with ASD is drowning. We recommend teaching your child to swim as early as they can.
5. Pay Attention to Signs and Triggers: Understanding your child’s goals for elopement is critical to preventing it from happening. If they are prone to react harshly to certain stimuli, working to remove, limit, or even avoid them is vital. If they are curious, letting them know that wandering off is unacceptable will only help.
6. Communicate Consistently with Your Child: Children with autism thrive on consistency and routine. If it is reinforced that leaving home without permission is unacceptable, they’re less likely to do so.
Talk with your ABA therapist or clinician about other possible ways that you can prevent your child from elopement as well. After all, each child has their own unique thought processes, and a therapist or specialist will likely have helpful and informative insight. For more resources for understanding autism for families read here.
Ally Pediatric Therapy is Here to Help
At Ally Pediatric Therapy, we understand how stressful it can be worrying about the possibility of your child eloping. We help children with autism and their families minimize risk through individualized ABA frameworks that provide consistency and education for any situation. Please reach out to us today if you’d like to learn more about proactive measures to further protect your child. We’d love to help.