Managing Elopement in Children with Autism - Blog - Achieve Beyond

Managing Elopement in Children with Autism

Written By: Celeste Moneme, BCBA, LBA

If you have a child that elopes, you are probably all too familiar with the stress and worry that come with knowing your child may wind up in a dangerous situation within a blink of an eye. Elopement is a significant safety concern that can have deadly consequences.

You may have deadbolts and latches on your doors and windows. Going on vacation or visiting with friends or relatives may have you on high alert. You may often feel anxious and on edge with constantly having to monitor your child’s whereabouts.

A survey conducted by the Interactive Autism Network in 2011, found that 49% of children between the ages of 4 and 10 engaged in elopement at least once. The results of their study also found that elopement is more common in children with autism than their typically developing peers.

Why Does Elopement Occur?

Elopement is generally defined as when a child leaves a specified area without their caregiver’s permission or supervision. There are many reasons why children engage in elopement behavior. Recent studies have identified the following reasons elopement occurs in children with autism:

  • The child enjoys running and exploring
  • The child wants to access a highly preferred activity or item
  • The child wants to escape and avoid uncomfortable situations
  • The child wants to escape and avoid uncomfortable sensory stimuli (e.g. loud noises)
  • The child wants to pursue his/her special topic (for example, a child that really likes trucks may elope the home to see a dump truck parked on the street)
  • The child wants attention from other people

If you have a child that elopes, it is recommended that you keep a behavior log of the elopement (Walker & McAdams, 2015). This may help you to better understand the purpose elopement serves for your child. The log should include:

  1. The time of day
  2. The place
  3. The activity that was happening when the elopement occurred
  4. People present
  5. A brief description of how you responded

By doing this, you may see a pattern of behavior that can give you an idea of what is triggering the elopement. For instance, if your child typically elopes from the bathroom while getting undressed around 7 p.m., they may be avoiding taking a bath. If they try to elope from the home every Sunday afternoon while company is visiting, the child may enjoy the attention of several concerned relatives taking off after them. It is also important to know how you respond to the elopement, as your response may inadvertently encourage or reinforce the behavior.

For example, if you laugh or smile while chasing after your child, they may think it is a game. You may want to consider enlisting the help of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who can provide a functional assessment to help determine why the behavior occurs. The BCBA can also provide professional training and guidance on how to handle the behavior.

What Can I Do About It?

While working with a behavior support team will provide you with specific strategies to address elopement, there are many practical steps you can take to help keep your child as safe as possible. Here are some recommendations:

  1. Make sure your child is wearing identification at all times.
  2. Register your child with the National Child Identification Program.
  3. Install door and window locks. Additionally, installing door and window chimes can alert you of an elopement attempt.
  4. Teach your child necessary safety skills (how to cross streets safely, how to swim, how to respond to their name, how to ask permission to leave a designated area, and to understand words like “stop” and “danger”).
  5. Speak with members of your community—neighbors and local law enforcement– to make sure they are aware of your child’s elopement behavior and have your contact information.
  6. Give your child plenty of opportunity to engage in their favorite activities, or have access to their favorite items. This may lessen the motivation to elope.

For additional reading, please check out these references:

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