Article by Abby Twyman, M.Ed., BCBA
Elopement is when a person leaves an area without permission or notification which usually leads to placing that individual in a potentially dangerous situation. Elopement, wandering or bolting from an area (i.e. home, classroom, etc.) is a relatively common problem in individuals with autism. A survey study conducted by Interactive Autism Network (IAN) found that nearly half of all individuals with autism (based on 800 responses) engaged in elopement behavior.
When you consider the survey found 35% of the individuals who reportedly engaged in elopement behavior were unable to communicate their name, address or phone number, it is obvious elopement is a serious concern for parents. The results of the survey indicate that elopement may occur for a variety of reasons such as sheer enjoyment of running and exploring, wanting to access a preferred location (i.e. a park) or activity, or wanting to leave a non-preferred location or activity (i.e. demands in school, loud environment). Most respondents indicated that the individual seemed playful, happy or focused when eloping as opposed to anxious, sad or confused.
The fear of your child getting lost or hurt can be extremely stressful for parents. This fear may prevent families from leaving the house freely, going on vacation and getting out into the community. As most of you know, however, it’s important to ensure individuals with autism have a variety of experiences in the community so they can learn the skills they need in order to be independent and successful. So what are families to do?
Families have three lines of defense when it comes to addressing elopement behavior. The first is to restrict the individuals’ ability to leave locations without permission. These solutions include high locks on the doors so they cannot be opened readily and door alarms. The second is to purchase med-alert bracelet or shoe tag with the individual’s information and emergency contact in case they get lost. While these are important solutions, they do no address the root of the problem. The third line of defense is to have a behavioral specialist (a board certified behavior analyst) conduct a functional behavior assessment (i.e. determine WHY the behavior is happening), develop an individualized behavior intervention plan, and train all key people in the individual’s life to implement the plan. Below you’ll find links to resources to address the first two lines of defense. Stay tuned for our next article regarding assessment of elopement behavior and behavior intervention strategies.