What does elopement mean in the context of autism?
When we search for the term “Elopement” online, the first thing that will appear is the classic definition of secretly running away with a partner. However, the significance of elopement in autism is something that, as parents and caregivers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), we must pay attention to as it poses a significant risk to the health and well-being of our children.
So, what does elopement mean in the context of autism? According to the CDC, elopement, also known as wandering, refers to when someone leaves or moves away from a safe area or the person who is taking care of them. This action is a safety problem because individuals on the spectrum often struggle to understand danger and communicate with others.
If you’re not aware of the dangers of elopement in autism, we recommend reading this blog by ABA Centers of New Jersey. You’ll learn about the risks associated with elopement and how ABA therapy can help families with children on the spectrum in Woodstown, Trenton, Paterson, and points in between.
What Causes Elopement in Autism?
Elopement or wandering from a place can occur due to various factors. Children are inherently curious beings who seek to explore new places and situations. In children with autism, this behavior may also happen due to intense fascination with specific locations or objects. For example, a child may want to cross the street to observe a traffic sign. So, let’s explore some common causes of elopement or wandering behavior in children:
- Many individuals with autism face difficulty expressing their needs or emotions verbally. Elopement may serve as a mechanism to “escape” and communicate their desires.
- Sensory sensitivities can contribute to elopement in autism, as it can be their response to overwhelming situations, seeking environments with fewer sensory triggers or stimuli that provide comfort
- Elopement in autism may also function as a non-verbal way for individuals to convey discomfort, fear, or dissatisfaction with their current situation
- Maintaining a routine and predictability is crucial for individuals on the spectrum. Changes in their environment or disruptions to established routines can induce distress, leading to elopement as a coping mechanism.
- People with ASD struggle to understand risks, whether it’s crossing the street without checking traffic, running out of the house due to a stressful situation, or exploring potentially dangerous environments like forests or lakes
A study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that almost half of the surveyed parents (49%, or 598 out of total respondents) reported that their child with ASD had attempted to wander away at least once after turning four years old. Of those, 26% (316 individuals) were gone long enough to cause concern. Of those who went missing, 24% were at risk of drowning, and 65% were at risk of injury in traffic.
The study also identified a correlation between the risk of elopement and the severity of autism. On average, for every 10-point increase in the Social Responsiveness Scale, the risk of elopement increased by 9%. In other words, the more severe the autism, the higher the likelihood of wandering.
Examples of Elopement Behavior
Now that we have explored the situations and why elopement is common in children with autism, let’s delve into six examples of this behavior:
- Leaving Home Unnoticed: A child with ASD may leave their home or a supervised environment without informing anyone, putting themselves at risk.
- Wandering in Public Places: Malls, parks, and stores can be over-stimulating places, making a child with autism want to run away.
- Running from School: Some children with ASD may attempt to leave the school premises without permission.
- Exiting a Vehicle Suddenly: A child might unexpectedly leave a vehicle, especially in busy areas like parking lots or during traffic.
- Wandering Near Water: Elopement can include situations where a child moves towards bodies of water like lakes, ponds, or rivers
- Moving Toward Traffic: Either because something caught their attention or they want to run away from a stimulus, children may elope onto streets or roads.
Risk Associated with Elopement in Autism
Although running away is not a widespread phenomenon among neurodivergent children, it is crucial to understand the dangers and drivers of this behavior to safeguard their safety. There can be too many risks due to runaway behaviors. However, we share the most common ones for you to be on the lookout for:
- Traffic injuries
- Getting lost
- Exposure to interacting with strangers
- Inability to communicate their needs
- Exposure to wildlife
- Unintentional drowning
According to the CDC, drowning is the number 1 cause of death overall for children between the ages of 1 and 4 years in the United States, with an estimated 4000 accidental drowning deaths per year. On the other hand, the study Characteristics of Unintentional Drowning Deaths in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder indicates that fatal drownings in children with ASD commonly occur in bodies of water near the victims’ residences during the afternoon, triggered by escape behaviors.
Strategies for Parents and Caregivers in New Jersey
As we’ve explored throughout this blog, certain elopement behaviors can precipitate a variety of circumstances that may result in accidents. Now, let’s delve into some practical strategies that you, as a parent or caregiver, can implement within your home environment to ensure the safety and well-being of your loved ones:
1. Establish a Structured Routine
Create a predictable daily routine that includes clear transitions. Consistency can help individuals with autism feel secure and may reduce the likelihood of elopement by providing a sense of order.
2. Use Visual Supports
Employ visual schedules, cues, or social stories to help your child understand expectations and transitions. Visual aids can enhance communication and reduce anxiety, potentially minimizing the urge to elope.
3. Teach Safety Skills
Actively teach safety skills, including road safety, recognizing danger, and understanding personal information. Equip the family with the tools to navigate their environment safely and make informed decisions.
4. Implement Environmental Modifications
If necessary, make modifications to the environment to reduce elopement risks. These changes include securing doors and windows, using alarms or childproof locks, and removing potential risks that attract attention.
5. Provide Sensory Supports
Understand sensory triggers that may contribute to elopement and address them. Offer sensory supports such as fidget tools or sensory breaks to help individuals cope with sensory challenges in a regulated manner.
6. Supervise and Monitor
Maintain vigilant supervision, especially in unfamiliar or potentially risky environments. Use technology, like GPS tracking devices or security cameras, to monitor individuals in a way that respects their privacy while ensuring safety.
Addressing Elopement with ABA Therapy
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy has proven to be a valuable tool in addressing elopement in individuals with autism. ABA therapy, with its focus on behavior modification, offers applicable strategies to mitigate elopement behaviors and promote a safer environment.
ABA therapists start by assessing elopement behavior triggers and patterns. They also gather background information from loved ones. A key aspect of ABA therapy for elopement and other challenging behaviors involves implementing proactive measures.
These changes include teaching the individual alternative, socially acceptable behaviors to replace the act of wandering. Through positive reinforcement and repeated practice, the person learns new skills that serve as alternatives to elopement, reducing the likelihood of unsafe situations.
By consistently reinforcing these directives and rewarding appropriate responses, therapy helps the person understand the importance of staying within safe boundaries. Through this comprehensive approach, individuals with autism can develop skills, coping mechanisms, and a sense of safety, which ultimately reduces the occurrence of elopement and improves their overall well-being.
ABA Centers of New Jersey Helps Your Child Avoid Unsafe Behaviors
Parents, caregivers, and those navigating autism spectrum traits know the challenges of handling elopement behaviors that may jeopardize safety.
Ensuring your child’s well-being leaves no space for unwarranted risks. Connect with our team of ABA care specialists at ABA Centers of New Jersey by calling us at (855) 640-7888 or contacting us online to discover the autism services we provide.
Rest assured, your child’s safety and development are our foremost concerns, and we are committed to supporting you through every step of the journey. Take action today for a safer and brighter future for your child.