What is Elopement?

Elopement in simple terms

When a person leaves a safe area for an area that’s unfamiliar or unsafe this is called eloping. It is a fear of every parent and caregiver, and this fear is compounded among parents with children who are neurodiverse. In many cases the person who elopes will end up being okay once they are returned to safety. Sadly, in some cases the elopement can lead to injury and can even be fatal.

Lets first explain elopement, understand why it happens, and look at some preventative strategies to make the situation a little safer if and when elopement occurs.

What does Elopement tell us?

Elopement may look like a person is simply trying to leave a designated area or be defiant. Most of the time, this couldn’t be further from what is going on. In a lot of cases, the person is trying to tell us something. Perhaps they want to go outside. If they are at school and they bolt from the classroom, maybe they need to use the bathroom. Or, they may simply want a break outside or to explore something. Elopement can be a way to escape. If that is the cause, then it is helpful to show the eloping person ways to better communicate what they need.

Why does elopement occur?

There’s numerous reasons for why a person might elope from an area. It could be that they are in a new environment and they’re simply not comfortable. There might be a transition period between activities that provides too much downtime. Figuring out these reasons and helping the person express them in a functional way can reduce eloping. By understanding why this behavior is happening, we can shape it so that the person eloping doesn’t feel the need to “bolt” from a given environment or situation.

What are behaviors a person can substitute for elopement?

Try to have your child or the child you are working with express what they want. If they aren’t able to verbally do this perhaps there’s a picture they can point to. If leaving a designated area isn’t possible at the moment, use a timer so that the person will know when they are going to gain access to a more preferred place. If the person is struggling with doing something that is non-preferred, have them express this. Let’s say they don’t like doing math problems and they bolt out of the room whenever the mere subject of math is mentioned. Maybe, instead of doing 20 math problems, they do 10 and then they can take a break. If 10 is too much, break that down into 5, take the break outside, and then finish up the 5 when you return to class. Following through with demands is very important, because it will show the person that they were able to go to a preferred place without eloping. Of course there are other reasons people elope. Sometimes they might simply feel overwhelmed. When this is happening be aware of the signs the person is giving you (escalated tone, body language, crumpling papers, etc.). It might be worth it to ask the person if they need a break, and then return to class so that eloping can be avoided.

If your child is an “eloper”, be proactive before eloping happens?

In addition to looking for signs that a person might be escalating and considering eloping, there are things you can do to get in front of that behavior.

Make Sure Your Home or Classroom is Safe:
Placing STOP signs next to doors and other exit and entry points can also help foster more thoughtful behavior. The little bit of time it takes to read the sign might be all you need to stop the person and have them tell you, in a functional way, what their needs are. Anything that slows down their forward movement can be helpful in this situation because elopement often happens when we are least expecting it. Lastly, a security system might be helpful, especially if you and the person who’s eloping are in two different areas of the house. There are many different types of security systems one can have. Some of those are:

  • Cameras with motion notifications at the exit points of the house (RING cameras do this really well), and an alarm that notifies when a door opens (the alarm can notify your phone and be audible to say “back door opened”).
  • Monitored cameras. This can provide an extra layer of protection for a family in the event that their child were to elope. The monitored cameras can have rules to call the family or 911 if they did not see an adult follow after the child out of the home or school campus.
  • Teach and Re-Teach Safety Skills: Aside from safety tips like “look both ways while crossing the street” and “watch out for traffic,” it is a good idea to proactively work on stopping if the person doesn’t actually understand the word STOP. This can be done by holding up the hand and saying “STOP”. It is a good idea for all children to be able to say their name (first and last) and their phone number. Knowing that information will be
    especially helpful in returning a person to safety, should they be lost or elope for a period of time where people are unaware that they are gone. For certain children who are neurodiverse, they may not be able to do this. They should carry a card or perhaps wear a bracelet (if they will tolerate it) with important information such as their name, address and parent’s phone number. There are even devices they can wear as watches and lanyards that contain GPS information so a parent can track them on their phone.

What to do when Elopement happens?

Having a plan in place is paramount to safety when elopement occurs. This is a plan that you should share with neighbors, caregivers, and law enforcement. It should contain your child’s picture, parent/caregiver contacts, medical information (do they have seizures?), what things do they like (animals? movies? songs?), and things that a person shouldn’t do if the child is eloping. Perhaps it’s bad to run after the child (or say their name sternly) as that might cause them to run more? Maybe a known person should walk at a measured pace and then ask onlookers to stand in the eloper’s path. This might corral the person who’s eloping to come back to the person they are familiar with. There are certainly going to be moments when we are preventing elopement that adrenaline will kick in. If a child doesn’t like being touched but they’re in the way of an oncoming vehicle, one will obviously have to touch them (as gently as possible given the situation) to get them to safety. However, by having a plan in place and sharing it with the people around us who are willing to help, we can take that extra step to make our community safer should our child elope.

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