49% of children with autism engage in elopement behaviour.
Elopement behaviour, or wandering, is by far the part of my son’s autism that scares me the most, and lately our experiences with this is on the rise.
For those that read my blog, I have referred to myself before as a bit of a ‘helicopter mom’. How can I not be? There have been situations where he has ‘bolted’ from school, programs, home, social gatherings, sporting events, and the list can go on. I could say he attempts to ‘escape’ from the situations that he finds overwhelming, with what seems like with little or no warning, however, I know better. Like any behaviour, I know there is always a warning, or perhaps many, but in these cases I’m just missing them. I like to think I’m one step ahead of him but the reality is I’m not, and as well, he’s not always with me.
Parents that have special needs children, such as autism, have to be especially vigilant. When our children wander they are at extreme risk. Many children with autism have a fascination with water and without adult supervision because of elopement behaviours, this can quickly lead to a very untimely death. In 2012, the National Autism Association stated that from 2009 to 2011, accidental drownings accounted for 91% of the total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism, subsequent to wandering. Sixty-eight percent of these deaths happened in a nearby pond, lake, creek or river.
According to Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) – which is a collaboration of six national non-profit autism organizations – drowning is far from the only danger for a wandering child. These children are at risk of being struck by a vehicle, falling from a height, dehydration, hypothermia, abduction, victimization and assault.
Wandering behaviours can occur for many reasons. My son is more of what you would consider a ‘runner’ – he will suddenly run or ‘bolt’ from a situation where he’s experiencing anxiety, frustration, fear or something that has simply caused him sensory overload. Other reasons may be goal-related where a child may be trying to get somewhere specific (i.e. home or a park) or maybe there is a particular object that has caught their attention and they wish to explore (i.e. water). Some individuals wander at night, become confused, disoriented and then lost. Whatever the reason, parents need to educate themselves about elopement behaviours and do what they can to protect their loved ones. As a parent or caregiver, if you haven’t seen the Big Red Safety Tool Kit, I would strongly recommend that you have a look and download it if you have a child or loved one that wanders.
On a bit of a personal note, the biggest challenge I find with this kind of behaviour, is trying to teach my son how dangerous it is. The word danger means nothing to him. Oh sure, he can define what it is, but in the heat of the moment, he doesn’t remember – nor does he care. Though he is quite high-functioning, at 9 years old he would jump out of a second-story window to escape feelings or a situation if he was feeling overwhelmed. He has little to no impulse control, so doesn’t stop to think about consequences. His actions are: react first, think second! It’s a little backwards to our traditional way of thinking and it can be very difficult to manage. I am told that as he matures this will improve, and in many ways, I am eagerly waiting that day! I watch as parents are carefree in letting their children walk down the street alone at the same age and even younger than my son… and I think to myself, when will I be able to do that? ‘Some day’, I tell myself… ‘some day’.
So, be sure to check out the Big Red Safety Tool Kit and for more information on wandering and elopement prevention, visit AWAARE. If there are only two words that I could share about children with autism and wandering behaviours, they would be: BE PREPARED!