E is for Elopement
“Check water first”. The most terrifying emergency directive a parent can hear….and this is the protocol for children with Autism who go missing. Elopement, wandering, bolting, fleeing. 48% of children with autism elope. Drowning is the leading cause of death in kids under 14 with Autism. We are lucky-A2 only gets distracted and wanders to find things that are interesting without regard to safety or whether a familiar adult is nearby–but he does not run from us–which prevents so many families from being able to go in public safely with their child. One of the things that makes A2’s non-elopement complicated as that he is not a risk…. until he is. He can go a full year with staying in eye shot and then one day out of no where he will simply leave the house. With no warning. He also cannot tell anyone his first and last name with consistency or clarity. He does not know his address or phone number despite years of practice. He knows my full name, but unless you are a trained listener. you will not understand him. We all know to approach a young child who appears to be lost, but most would not think to approach an older child or young adult. Be aware–this is one way we can all be a village to our families!
Unfortunately, there are limited ways to actually prevent elopement behaviors. When we assume the function of behavior is escape we may be missing out on other factors. Does he bolt and laugh while doing it as he watches you chase him (attention)? Is he fascinated with streetlamps or water or heavy equipment and feels intense compulsion to go check it out (access or internal attenuation)? Does he seem to leave only in specific situations or with specific people? If you have a child that is a runner, consider tracking the behavior for antecedents and response or consequence (even when unintended), track the time of day and what was happening around him at the time. Track WHAT the elopement looks like…does he run or is it more like walking away? Does it change what it looks like based on the situation? Besides lockdown and direct supervision, understanding your child’s behavior through data collection is your best preventative defense.
As far as what else you can do if your child is an elopement risk…again, limited but both high and low technology options can be lifesavers. If your county or police department have a special needs registry, register your child. There is a national initiative and grant called Project Lifesaver that your police department can utilize and get wristbands with gps or radio signal your child can wear. Keep an up to date photo of him on you at all times. Create a card he can carry with him with his information and use discrete trial training to teach him to hand it to someone if he cannot find you. Consider a cell phone and GPS tracking or the Find My iPhone App. There are tracking devices like http://www.angelsense.com available for a monthly fee. These attach to the inside of clothing. Go online and search for other high and low tech options….they are out there. It is easy not to move forward because we do not want to assume the worst…..but like for so many of us in many aspects of our lives with our kiddos…we have hope for the best…but plan for the worst.