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What is eloping in autism?

Every parent’s nightmare is that their child is going to run off. This is called eloping.

For parents of children with Special Needs, this fear is compounded. Their child might be non-verbal, afraid of certain noises, or unable to understand when a stranger or even a known person is trying to help them be safe.

Even in a dangerous situation, they might see somebody trying to corral them back to a safe space as a game. In the best of cases, the child is safely returned to the area they left. In the worst, the eloping incident can end tragically.

Eloping is common for many people. Older people can do it as well. There are many different reasons why a person may elope. If we are proactive and not reactive during these situations, we can put ourselves and our loved ones in safe situations before an eloping incident happens.

Oftentimes, children elope to gain access to a favorable item or area. Try and keep items that your child might want in whatever space you are in (room, car, bus, store, etc.). When you notice they are gone don’t panic.

Remain calm and think back to determine how long they have been gone, how far they could have traveled, and where they could possibly be. This will help you search and find your loved one as soon as possible.

If other people are nearby and available when your child elopes, ask them to look for your child as well. You’ll be able to cover more ground in a shorter time together as a team.

Before going out into the community or playing a game in and around your home, have verbal and visual rules so your child knows what is expected of them. Make sure they know the area where the game is played.

Instruct them not to leave the area. Let them know that if they do, the game will end immediately. If they need to use the bathroom or get water or a snack, make sure they know to communicate that before leaving the given area. Sometimes you may be on the phone and your child wants to leave.

Have them understand different forms of non-verbal communication. Nodding your head means that they can “go”. Holding up your hand or a finger means they should “wait” until you talk to them.

Children sometimes run off quickly in a moment and then panic when they realize they no longer see you. Teach your children how to look for community helpers and how to provide them with information to help find you. Helpers they can look for in the community when they are lost include police officers, crossing guards, firefighters, store employees, and more.If your child cannot answer questions and make statements verbally, you can teach them to give a card or id bracelet to a community helper when they are lost so that you can be contacted.

Eloping can happen when a child leaves their home or is outside. When children are outside, eloping becomes even easier because of the lack of contained spaces. When walking down the street, depending on your child’s age, make sure you hold their hand.

When walking, position your body on the outside, across from your child, so that you are closest to traffic. When playing any sport, set up the game so that it creates the least amount of opportunities for balls and children to go out into the street. Position an adult on the side closest to the street so they can intervene and stop a stray ball or child if need be.

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