Autism and Elopement

As a teenager, I ran off quite frequently. Sometiems, I started off with a purpose, such as going to the mall, but I ended up lost and then wandered off in a meltdown. Sometimes, I ran away because of an argument with my parents, because I was overwhelmed, or for no apparent reason at all. Running off is pretty common in young children and teens, but when you have disabilities, it complicates the matter. For example, I would not as easily have gotten lost on my way to the mall had I not been blind. Parents of autistic children often talk about elopement as if it is somethig unique to autistic children. This is of course not true – neurotypical children elope too -, but, when a child has social and communicativve difficulties, elopement does become a more dangerous thing.

In The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children wiht Autism, 2nd edition, by Adelle Dameson-Tilton and Charlotte E. Thompson (2012), there’s a specific section on elopement. Strategies advised to prevent it include the usual: put extra locks on doors to the outside, install an alarm system, etc. However, the authors also advise parents to establish a routine whereby the child knows when they can and can’t leave the home. For example, for a young child, they can’t leave the home unsupervised. Evene as an adult, I need to have a routine that says I can’t leave the ward unsupervised unless I have a specific goal and know the way there. Most autistic children outgrow elopement, but some do not. I feel that, especially with older children, explaining elopement and why it is dangerous, is vital. Social stories or pictures may help with this. The reality is, even on locked institution wards, people elope, and there are no places in the care system where your autistic (adult) child will get the one-on-one supervision you might provide them at home.

Jameson-Tilton and Thompson advise always informing trusted people in your neighborhood and the local police of your child’s risk of elopement. When I lived indpenednetly, I didn’t inform the police, but they got to know me soon enough. As Jameson-Tilton and Thompson suggest, a MedicAlert identification bracelet may be useful. In the Netherlands and I believe many other countries too, autism cards are sold which have a few key points about autism on them and on which you can write your name and an emergency contact number. For non-verbal autistics, an identification bracelet is still needed, because reaching in your pocket wihtout warnign may be interpreted as dangerous by the police, so you will need to be able to say that you have a card which explains your disability.

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