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Elopers need more freedom

Dec 11, 2018

I've been working on a course to help parents teach their autistic kids how to go out in public successfully, and researched one of the main reasons families stay home: eloping.

If you don't know what eloping is as it pertains to autism, consider yourself very lucky. Like the traditional definition of eloping, in which people run away to get married, eloping in autism means a child or adult runs away from school, home or elsewhere without a caregiver. It happens every damn day and it's rarely the fault of teachers, aides, parents or caregivers being careless or inattentive. Oftentimes, the child is very clever and sneaky about it, and disappear in a matter of seconds.

Because people with autism have an impaired sense of danger, elopement is dangerous and sometimes even fatal. Because people with autism may not respond to commands from law enforcement, they're even at risk of being killed by police. If they're nonverbal, they may not be able to communicate who they are if they are found.

A 2016 survey of 800 parents revealed that about half of all children with autism have attempted to elope and of those, half have succeeded. That means 25% of all children with autism have gone missing. And of those who eloped, one-third required significant medical attention or died.

The common reaction to elopement is to lock down the child, and my god, given the dangers, that's understandable. Most experts advise installing additional locks or alarms at home, attaching a tracking device to the chid's clothing and keeping emergency information like a recent photograph and description handy. These are all good safety measures.

However, putting the child under house arrest could make the situation even worse.

The survey results showed two basic reasons kids elope: to seek out something they want (fun, a favorite place or an interest) and to escape something they don't want (overstimulation, an uncomfortable environment or abuse).

This blog post is about the first reason: eloping to seek out something they want. Parents identified that as a more common reason to elope than escaping, with more than half of them saying their child eloped for the simple enjoyment of running and exploring. 

Put simply, more than half kids with autism who run do so because they are bored AF and lack fulfillment.

It's quite the conundrum, this business of reducing elopement risk by providing more freedom. Perhaps freedom isn't the right word here. Maybe they need more supervised adventure. Or even just a chance to go somewhere besides school and therapy appointments. Somewhere fun, like other kids.

If we are to assume competence in our children, we must fulfill their need for fun, excitement and adventure. Yes, it's harder to take a kid with autism into public. And if they are runners, that makes it even harder.

However, it's cruel and unfair to isolate someone because of their disability, even in the name of safety. It's a fundamental human right to experience the world.

And if kids and adults with autism are lucid enough to figure out complicated locks and devise escape plans, they can learn how to safely go out into the world with a caregiver. 

One family's solution was to approach walking next to a parent as a learned skill. Their son was very active and never walked in a straight line - he took three steps forward, spun around, ran five steps in another direction, hopped to the side, took one step forward, and so on. Sound familiar? I've been there, maybe you have, too.

The family began by using ABA methods to teach three specific skills: taking two steps in the same direction, keeping both feet on the ground and standing next to a parent. Once mastered, the intensity of each skill was increased until the boy was able to safely walk around the block with his family. He learned to stop at corners and wait until it was safe to cross. Soon, he was going everywhere safely.

Tosh struggled to walk next to me when he was a toddler and preschooler, and I had to keep a death grip on his hand. I didn't know how to teach him to stay with me, especially at the grocery store, until I noticed a mom walking down the sidewalk along a very busy street pushing a stroller. Two more kids, both quite young, walked obediently next to her. Both kids had their hands on the stroller.

I decided that instead of teaching Tosh how to walk next to me, I would instead teach him to keep one hand on the shopping cart every time we went to the store. It took lots of reinforcement at first but he learned more quickly than I expected. And it made him feel a little more independent than having to hold on to his mom's hand. Now, at age 7, he's in charge of pushing the cart in the store and through the parking lot to the car. He's so used to staying next to me, I rarely have to remind him. He's a pro who has been doing this for more than half his life.

After every outing, I always compliment Tosh on how well he listens and stays close to me. The reason he gets to go so many places, I explain, is because he's so good at those skills. Positive reinforcement goes a long way.

Here are some other ideas to help manage eloping.

Teach your child how to swim. Tosh took swimming lessons earlier this year and it's not only made trips to the pool more fun for everyone, it's also reduced my fears that he will drown. He's not strong enough to survive a leap into a river, but if he wandered into someone's backyard and jumped into their pool, he'd be okay. His swimming instructor, who specializes in special needs kids, even had him practice jumping into a pool fully clothed and wearing shoes, and swimming to the edge.

Get fit. Kids can and do run away from very fit people, but if you can't keep up with your child at all, you're at a much greater risk of elopement. 

Let them explore. Sometimes we are in a hurry, but would it be so bad to let you child see what is around the corner if they are curious? Children are naturally curious, even kids with autism. At least once a month, Tosh and I go on an "adventure" to some place we've never been before. Sometimes it's a nature hike on a new trail; other times, it's just a trip to a different Target store. Don't get caught up in reinforcing rigidity. Explain the concept of adventure to your child and ask them if they would like to go on an adventure to someplace new. They might surprise you.

Help them pursue their interests. Dr. Temple Grandin advocates for this in every speech for all kids with autism, regardless of severity. If your child is being intellectually and/or creatively stimulated, they won't spend their spare time thinking up ways to escape. Yes, you might have to take thousands of trips to the model train museum or expose your child to everything under the sun before you find something that clicks, but how many soccer practices and dance lessons do neurotypical kids get to attend? Those things are fun and fulfilling. Behavioral therapy, not so much. Kids with autism have the right to discover and pursue things they enjoy, too.

Teach them independence. If you never allow your child to experience freedom, they will never gain the skills needed to live independently or someday reduce the support you provide. This blog post written by a mother who overcame her fears to give her autistic son more freedom is a very inspiring read.

If your child elopes, how do you help support their need for adventure and freedom? If you have more tips, please share them for others!

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