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Elopement
Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused; Behavioral Health, Child-focused



Question

Our 5-year-old son with autism has many challenging behaviors, but the one that worries me the most is his tendency to suddenly run out of the house or away from me when we’re out in public. Once he ran into the street and was almost hit by a car!

Answer

By Melanie Dubard, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Vice President, Clinical and Educational Services, May Institute

In a study of more than 1,200 American children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) recently published in the journal Pediatrics, their families reported that nearly half of them regularly bolted or wandered from their homes, schools, or community settings.

The study found that “elopement behavior” (running or wandering away) puts affected children at increased risk of injury or death. Nearly two-thirds of parents said their missing children had a “close call” with a traffic injury. Other findings included:

• Wandering was ranked among the most stressful ASD behaviors by 56% of parents.

• Children between the ages of 7 and 10 who have an ASD are eight times more likely to elope than their typically developing siblings.

• Sixty-two percent of families of children who elope were prevented from attending/enjoying activities outside the home due to fear of their child wandering away.

• Forty percent of parents had suffered sleep disruption due to fear of elopement.

• Half of the families said that they had never received advice or guidance about elopement from a professional.

“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 article concluded.

Address safety first
If your child is at risk for running away and getting lost, your first priority is to do everything possible to ensure his safety. You may want to consider installing alarms or chimes on some of the doors and windows in your home that will alert you if they are opened.

If your child is nonverbal, you may want to get him a medical ID bracelet or a temporary tattoo that can provide information he would not be able to offer if he were lost. You may also want to invest in a portable GPS device that your child can wear. You can register the device at your local police station and if the child runs away, the police can use a GPS locater to find him.

Develop a plan
Once you have appropriate safety precautions in place, the next step is to develop a plan to address your child’s elopement behavior. A behavior analyst can be helpful with this process. He or she would first conduct a functional behavior assessment to determine why the child bolts or wanders off. Is he trying to escape an unpleasant task? Is he fascinated by water or interested in big trucks?

After determining the reason for the behavior, the analyst can help you teach your child alternative ways to get what he wants. For example, you could teach your child to request a break rather than run away to escape a task he does not want to do. You could also teach him to ask for access to things or activities that interest him such as a visit to the fire department or a “cruise night” to check out vehicles, or an afternoon at a pool or lake to engage in water play.

Establish basic rules
It is a good idea to establish some basic rules for your child to follow when you take him out into the community. If he follows the rules, his reward might be a favorite dessert or an extra half-hour of television. If he does not follow the rules, not only will he not receive the reward, the outing is immediately terminated.

With repeated practice and enough positive reinforcement, your child will learn that if he engages in more appropriate behaviors like staying with an adult in public or staying in his assigned seat at school, he will have more access to items and activities he enjoys.

Developing and implementing a plan to modify your child’s elopement behavior will help keep him and others safe. It will also help you know exactly how to respond if your child runs away. This will help you keep calm in the moment so you can manage your child’s behavior effectively.