Autism and Elopement: What Is It? How Can ABA Therapy Help?

Autism and Elopement: What Is It? How Can ABA Therapy Help?

by | Sep 22, 2023 | ABA Therapy, Autism

What Is Elopement?

The term “elope” usually means to run away and not return to a place. As applied to the special needs community, “elopement” refers to an individual with cognitive challenges or special needs who wanders, runs away from, or otherwise leaves a place or environment.  

Elopement is a common issue with children with autism, whether it is running away from parents in the park, running away in the grocery store parking lot, wandering away from family or school at an event, or wandering towards a body of water such as a pool or lake. Nearly half of all children with autism will at some point attempt to wander or run away.  

Why Do Children with Autism Elope?

Children with autism may elope to get access to a favorite item, such as eloping in the store to go to the toy or candy aisles. When at home or outside they may elope because they want to go to a favorite place.  They may also elope because they like exploring or running, or because they like to have someone chase them. Finally, children with autism may elope for sensory reasons. They may want to escape too much sensory stimulation by leaving an area that is noisy or crowded. They may also want more sensory stimulation, such as going to water for the calmness and the physical feel of the water.  

How ABA Therapy Can Help with Elopement

ABA Therapy can help with elopement by working on programs to teach the child to stay with who they are with, whether the person is an ABA therapist at the clinic or a parent outside of the clinic. Another program will teach the child to return to the therapist or parent when called.

When using ABA therapy to reduce elopement the child receives positive reinforcement for staying with their caregiver or returning when called. The child’s Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) will introduce the program in a safe space and, after the child has mastered the skill in the safe space, start to generalize the skills to more areas, to the parents during parent training, and to the home and community environments with the parents.

ABA Therapy can also help the family to determine the function of the child’s elopement behavior.  Is the child running away in the store because they want access to something or because they are trying to get away from noise or something that bothers them? Once the reason for the behavior is understood it will help to determine solutions for preventing or reducing the risk of elopement.

Reducing the Risks of Elopement 

In addition to ABA therapy, parents can take measures at home and in the community to reduce the risks of elopement. If the child can open doors at home the parents may want to put alarms on doors or windows to alert them when they are opened. Parents may also want to put additional locks or flip latches on the doors in a place that is too high for the child to reach.  

If your child is attracted to water you may want to find a swimming instructor to teach your child to swim. If you are not able to find an instructor who specializes in teaching children with autism to swim, a typical instructor who is willing to teach your child on a one-on-one basis with an ABA therapist in assistance may be a good alternative.  

Other measures can help if your child does elope. If possible, teach your child their name and phone number so that they can recite it to someone who finds them. An identification bracelet or shoe tag with your child’s name, diagnosis, and parents’ phone number will help if someone finds your child. Tracking devices can also help to locate your child.  

Advise your neighbors that your child elopes so that they will know to contact you if they see your child wandering alone. Have current full-length and headshot photos of your child.  Also, have a written description of where they may elope to, what upsets them, and ways to calm them.  Have these ready so that you can quickly distribute them to law enforcement, neighbors, and others who may search for your child.  

Help Your Child Thrive with ABA Therapy

Elopement is common in children with autism but with ABA therapy and preventive measures, parents can reduce the risks of elopement and improve the outcome if their child does elope. 

Ready to take the first step towards a safer and more positive future for your child? Start your Steps to Progress journey today and learn more about our ABA therapy services. It’s our goal to help your child thrive while reducing the risks of elopement. Reach out to us now!

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