Elopement is a scary reality for many parents of children on the autism spectrum. Running or wandering away is not an uncommon act for kids with autism, including my own child. Personally, it is the thing that scares me the most for Damion. Damion has a low sense for his surroundings and watching out for dangerous things, not to mention limited communication skills. I have nightmares about him wandering away from us and getting lost or getting hurt or worse. The fear of this has permanently rewired my mindset for how I view any activity or outing for my family. Today I’d like dive into this issue and go over a few tips, tricks, and ideas for how to deal with elopement. The focus should obviously always be on prevention, but we will take a look at things that could help if the situation does happen as well.
- Help for your home
I still remember the first time Damion walked out the front door without me being aware. I think I almost had a heart attack. He was only about 2 and a half at the time and he had figured out how to work our gate that was set up to block the walkway to the front door. Damion was always full of energy and he often tended to try and run ahead of me when we were out and about, but he had never just walked out of the house before! I felt like the luckiest person in the world when I found him just at my next-door neighbors. He could have just as easily walked out to the road. We put some temporary blocks in place to keep him from getting to the door until we were able to install additional locks high up where he could not reach. He is 7 now and those locks are still in place and used daily. At my grandmother’s house we had a few issues of him wandering out of the house as well, so she installed a deadbolt that can be locked from the inside or outside with only a key to unlock it. It has worked well for her when she watches him. We have never installed door or window alarms but this is another good option, especially if you have any concerns of children climbing out windows which can happen as well.
- Teach them when possible
Obviously if it was easy to just teach them to understand that wandering off is bad, then this wouldn’t really be such a big problem in the first place. Learning these things can feel like a slow and tedious process, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I specifically made a request when he was attending ABA to go out into the community to teach me methods I could utilize that would detract him from getting away from me. We worked on going to parks and places that had lots of interesting things that he would normally see and want to run to. At those places we would work on him waiting and staying with me and holding hands. We would also reward him when he would come back to me on verbal command. We also worked on things like going to the grocery store and tried to build techniques or our own rules for him to follow, like teaching him to hold the cart the whole time as we walked through the store. It was helpful, but it is still to this day, an ongoing work in progress.
- Avoid unsafe situations
We have worked hard on teaching Damion to not wander, but even when we work on these items, I am in a state where I feel that I have enough control over the situation. I may be able to go somewhere very small but going into a large store like Walmart by myself with three children is not something that I would do. I would not take all three kids by myself to a busy public outing in general. Without consistent reminders, Damion still has a tendency to get too far away. Not to mention that Damion is fast, so it wouldn’t take long for him to put some distance between himself and whoever is with him if he tried to bolt. It is just not safe. Thankfully we live in a time when things like grocery pickup and home delivery for items are easily accessible. If I do have to go out even for very basic things, I have to find someone to come along with me, or have someone watch the kids. It is not the most ideal or convenient situation, but until I am sure that Damion will not get away from me, it is necessary.
- Prepare for the worst
As I said before, obviously preventing should be the number one goal. But it is always good still be prepared for a worst-case scenario. If your child is verbal, do your best to get them to memorize their basic information (first and last name, address, phone number, etc.) in case they get lost and someone asks them for it. For non-verbal, younger kids, or those that have difficulty answering questions, ID bracelets or something that your child can wear to identify them and that they have autism could be a great option (example here). You can go pretty fancy tech wise as well and purchase a GPS tracking device (example here). I have personally never tried one of these, but the ones I have looked into have a number of great features such as tamper proof designs, multiple wearing options for those with sensory issues, two-way voice options, first responder alarms, etc. We currently feel comfortable with the set up we have in place but if our situation changed, I would definitely consider one of these units.
Being social is a great way to help prevent issues as well. Go around to your neighbors, teachers, coaches and adults in areas that you plan on being; introduce your child, explain the situation, give out your contact information. If it really does take a village to raise a kid, then utilize your village! It never hurts to have extra eyes on the lookout to make sure your child is not getting themselves into an unsafe situation.
Issues with elopement can vary from just general wandering when you are out and about, to children who actively try to escape from their home on a frequent basic. If you have specific issues that come into play don’t forget to reach out to your county board of DD or other professionals that you work with to come up with ideas to help. Identifying why they are trying to elope may be a big key in how you address the issue as well. If, God forbid, you do get into a situation where you cannot find your child. DO NOT wait to reach out for help. Time is absolutely of the essence. Hopefully these bits of advice come in handy and your family can find ways specific to your own situation that help prevent any of these dangerous elopement situations for your child with ASD.