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Elopement – What Is It?

We often hear the term elopement when talking about autistic children. Find out what it is, why autistic children elope, how to prevent it, and what to do should your child elope. 

Elopement – What Is It?

Running away is a fairly well-known behavior in neurotypical children and is often romanticized by a cute image of the little boy with his stick and wrapped lunch draped over his shoulder, moping along the railway tracks in an act of benign defiance.  

The reality, sadly, is much grimmer. Every year, we are confronted with stories of children escaping the relative safety of their homes and schools with their pictures ending up on the proverbial milk carton or worse.  

This scary and dangerous behavior is known as wandering and elopement. Though elopement isn’t uncommon for children in general, it is seen more often in people with autism, and is often more of a safety concern.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Autism Association (NAA), the statistics on how many individuals with autism display elopement behavior are alarming: 

  • 49% of autistic children elope 
  • 35% attempt elopement at least once a week 
  • 33% of autistic elopers cannot communicate basic information like name, address, or phone number 
  • 90% of elopement deaths are drowning related 
  • 42% of autistic elopements aged nine or younger end in death 

These numbers are enough to drive any parent of children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to despair. That said, you are not completely without options to reduce your child’s risk of becoming one of these statistics.  

To mitigate the risk of losing your child or avoiding any harm, you need to be clear on what eloping is, know why ASD kids elope, watch for signs of elopement, take steps to prevent it and, perhaps most importantly, know what to do if it does eventually happen.  

Why do autistic children elope?

The underlying reasons for both autistic and allistic (non-autistic) children to elope are fairly similar. Usually, a child is either trying to get away from something painful or pursuing something desirable.  

According to a review of the assessment and treatment of elopement, Dr. Megan Boyle and Dr. Reesha Adamson of Missouri State University broke these two primary causes into four distinct reasons: 

  1. To get away from a place, activity, or person (escape) 
  1. To obtain access to an item, activity, or person 
  1. To engage in an intrinsically pleasurable activity, such as running 
  1. To gain attention 

While these may seem fairly universal to all children, some children with ASD, depending on age and developmental level, may lack the mental acuity, awareness, and intuition to avoid danger and discern a threatening situation from a safe one.  

This becomes even more dangerous when autistic children are non-verbal or non-responsive to unfamiliar stimuli, making it difficult for them to communicate with concerned passers-by or even potential predators.  

Prevention is better than cure

It is never guaranteed that you can prevent your child from eloping. However, there are a number of strategies that you can implement to reduce the risk of elopement in high functioning autism, or autistic individuals with excellent social skills. 

Be vigilant

In most cases, caregivers or parents miss nuanced tell-tale signs that a child is about to elope. Keep an eye out for the following, especially if there is a history of elopement: 

  • Persistent glances at the door or exit 
  • Signs of sensory overload or overstimulation 
  • Fixation on objects, activities, or people outside or away from the safe environment 
  • Plays for attention 

Communicate

If you are aware that your child is an elopement risk, it is crucial to inform all caregivers and provide them with a list of elopement signs and signals to watch out for. In some cases, a child with ASD may display consistently calm and complacent pliant behavior, leaving  caregivers with a false sense of security. Let them know that regardless of your child’s compliance, there is a high risk of elopement.  

Functional Communication Training

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is a process in which autistic children are given alternatives to problematic behavior like elopement to get what they need.  

For instance, if they previously eloped to get attention, use FCT or communication tools to ensure they receive the right kind of attention in similar situations, from their preferred person, possibly using visual aids as needed.  

In the case of escape, do not reprimand or punish the child for eloping, but rather assess what about the situation triggered the elopement and change the situation accordingly.  

Where the child simply enjoys a particular item or activity and elopes to engage with it (like running or trying to access a  particular toy), consider introducing scheduled events so that the child can anticipate it without indulging the impulse to elope to fulfill the desire.  

How to prepare for elopement

As mentioned earlier, elopement can be almost completely unavoidable despite your best efforts to prevent it. Thankfully, the CDC has created a list of tips to help you prevent elopement and aid in a prompt recovery should your child elope:   

  • Never leave your child unsupervised.  
  • Install specialized locks and alarms on doors. 
  • Attach GPS tracking devices that will trigger an alert if your child wanders from a specific location and track their whereabouts. 
  • Inform neighbors, caregivers, family, etc., of your child’s propensity to elope. 
  • Sew all basic information into your child’s clothing, such as their name, address, and phone number. 
  • Increase vigilance when your child is exposed to a change in environment. 
  • Help your child familiarize themselves with your environment so that they know of safe places and trustworthy adults in the area in case they get lost. 
  • Set up an emergency response plan. 
  • Walk your child through their portion of the emergency plan so that they know what steps to take in case they are separated from you for any reason. 
  • Teach your child safety commands such as “stop.” 
  • Teach your child to swim. 
  • Teach your child how to cross a street. 
  • Meet with any healthcare providers who understand your child’s unique situation and ask for their expert advice. 
  • Keep a current photo of your child at all times. 
  • Immediately call first responders. 

Let Lighthouse Autism Center help you and your child

As the Midwest’s leading autism therapy institution, Lighthouse Autism Center provides world-leading autism resources alongside our groundbreaking  Lighthouse Fusion ABA Therapy program which fuses the best of ABA and speech therapy into a unique clinical model to help you and your child navigate the world. 

Together, we can unlock your child’s potential

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