Elopement: There is Nothing Romantic About It! | Autism Awareness

Elopement | Autism AwarenessElopement, also known as wandering or bolting, is defined as slipping away or escaping.  For parents of children with autism prone to this behavior, it means living in a constant state of alert.  A state of fear.  It has been in the news more and more as of late as we are losing more and more of our little super heroes to it.  With all of the therapies we’ve been blessed to recieve, not once has anyone educated me on this not-so-commonly discussed side effect of autism.  Not once.  …and I’m not alone.  Roughly half of parents say the same thing in regards to advisement and education on wandering.

A few mornings ago, my little spidermonkey came into my room and climbed into my bed, like he does every single morning.  Seems like he learned ages ago how to climb over his 39″ gate system even though he’s just a few inches taller than it is.  He had his brother’s iPad and seemed quite content in his tent under my covers as I started the shower for us.  I started putting some stuff away under the counter in the bathroom as I waited for the water to warm up.  When I turned back around, he had left the room.  A split second after that, the doorbell rang.  I knew.  My heart stopped and I knew.  He’d gotten out.  …but how?!?  Hadn’t I secured everything?

I had put “child-proof” safety covers on all of the door knobs leading outside.  Two of our deadbolts require several turns of the switch to open, so he stopped bothering with them.  …but then there was the carport door.  An easy one-turn dead-bolt, but I had a safety cover on the door knob.  It wasn’t enough.  In the blink of an eye, he went to that door, took the safey cover completely off and was out in the street.  Naked.  Someone driving by stopped and he ran back into the house.  I thank God for that.  I never stop wondering what will happen the next time he outsmarts my safety measures.

Children prone to elopement usually head for the deadliest of places once they’ve escaped, busy streets or bodies of water.  Many are also prone to shed their clothing during the course of their elopement event, such was the case of the 11-year-old autistic girl tasered by the Oregon State Police in June.  According to a recent article by David Crary of the Associated Press, there have been 60 deaths attributed to wandering in the last four years.  Of the deaths in recent years, about 91% of those are drowning fatalities and it is reported that most of the remaining individuals died after being struck by an automobile.  About half of children diagnosed with autism have the tendancy toward elopement.  This puts the number of children at risk currently at over 500,000 and rising.  The article also goes on to point out that those with the tendancy to wander usually have reduced speech capabilities and an inability to absorb lessons on safety and the consequences of danger.

Some parents resort to sleeping in their child’s room in an effort to catch them before they are able to wander off at night.  It becomes a matter of literally never letting your child out of your sight.  For those dealing with this, every day includes a state of hypervigilance that can become exhausting.  Vacations are avoided, family get togethers are missed, all in attempt to keep their children safe.  We all have to cook, clean and shower sometime, constant monitoring is simply not humanly possible.  In addition, those with the tendancy to wander watch for the moment the smallest gap in supervision arrises and they spring into action.  So, what do we do?

Below are some suggested ways of dealing with the dangers of elopement:

Preventative Measures

  • Enroll your child in a swimming course to reduce their risk of drowning during and elopement episode.  The final lesson should include the child being fully clothed.
  • Address elopement concerns in your child’s IEP meetings.
  • Use locks and alarms on all doors and windows.
  • Use of visual cues such as a red STOP sign on exterior doors and windows.
  • Give your child scheduled time with the source of his elopement attraction.(water play, swimming lessons)
  • Be mindful of elopement triggers(for those that bolt AWAY from situations or things).

Vacation and Family Gathering Safety

  • Use a portable lock system while away on vacation or while visiting family or friends.
  • Use temporary tattoos while on vacation to include emergency information.
  • Always have one person in front and one behind your child when hiking or on family outings.
  • Use the TAG system to ensure that your child is being watched during family functions.

Emergency Management Measures

  • Use ID tags or bracelets and tracking devices for authorities to be able to quickly ID or track your child(where capabilities exist).
  • Advise local law enforcement, rescue services, any of their caregivers and trusted neighbors of your child’s tendancy to wander and his usual path.
  • Develop a family emergency plan in case of an elopement event.
  • As a Emergency Response Worker, ALWAYS search around water first!

*The products I’ve suggested are merely examples, a starting point to guide you in the right direction. Search the products available and find the ones that best fit your family’s needs.

In my quest for answers and advice, I have found the following sites to be extremely helpful:

AWAARE Collaboration
Awaare is a site that provides helpful, downloadable checklist and tips as well as a listing of helpful services available in your area.

NAA Checklist
This is a detailed cheklist of steps you can take to help ensure the safety of your little superhero.

KennedyKrieger Institute
Includes some very interesting statistics regarding elopement.

The Bottom Line

If you’re struggling with elopement issues with your superhero, you must understand two things:  you are human and they are very determined.  Statistically, you will face an elopement event regardless of how secure your home is or how vigilant you are.  This DOES NOT make you a bad parent.  Proactively notify your local emergency services.  In the event you need to call them, you can do so without fear of judgement if you’ve made them aware of the situation.  Do not let fear of judgement or pride stop you from immediately seeking help should elopement occur.  Above all, breathe.  Take a moment, take a breath, have a hot cup of tea and know that you’re not alone.  There are many like you, myself included, who face the same fears and the same questions.  While proactive education regarding elopement has a long way to go, it looks like the information and resources are out there.  When you finish that tea, get out and spread the word.

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