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Have you ever heard of a special needs child running away or ‘escaping’ from school? If you have not, it is a common problem that many special needs parents are coping with. This problem is called elopement.
What is elopement?
Elopement is when someone leaves an area, without notification, that could potentially put them in a dangerous situation. During these times, children may leave their school or home, wander into the middle of the street or intentionally bolt from an area. This can be very scary and stressful for parents, preventing families from getting out of the house. Or if this is happening at school, parents may worry about sending their child to school.
Elopement can be quite common with special needs children, especially those with autism. Unfortunately, when most children elope, they are not able to communicate any identifiable information about themselves, such as name, address or phone number. Families who deal with elopement are in constant fear of their child injuring themselves or even worse, death.
Why do children elope?
Identifying the reasons for elopement can be quite tricky. There is no magical formula that states if your child does A and B, then they will elope. Even though elopement does occur more frequently in children with autism, it is important to remember that every child is different. I have seen many elopers who did not have autism. Typically children with special needs will elope to escape a non-preferred activity or sensory stimulation, want to pursue something they are interested in or may just want to run.
Although these are popular behavioral reasons for children who elope, you do not want to rule out any medical conditions. If your child is wandering/eloping and you checked behavioral causes, you should ask your child’s doctor about sleep disorders, seizures, medication side effects or any other medical conditions that can be related to elopement.
What can I do to protect my child at home?
One of the best things you can do for your child at home is to work on preventing the behavior. There are simple things you can do like putting deadlocks on doors or covering door handles with door knob covers. But what it your child has already mastered (which most children have) opening the door anyway? Here are a few suggestions:
- Watch your child – One of the simplist things you can do is to not let your child out of your sight (or someone else’s) for one second. Children can escape at the blink of an eye. For this reason, know the signs when your child is about to escape.
- Restrict their escape – You can do this by installing alarms, putting locks high on doors so they cannot reach them or placing a gate or fence to surround your property. Even though your child may still be able escape, the alarms will alert you and the locks will slow them down.
- Rethink sleeping arrangements – Does your child try to escape at night? If so, then you may need to sleep in the same room with them until you are able to manage the situation.
- Use a social story – Social stories are a great way to teach appropriate behaviors. You can also use social stories to teach how to respond to safety commands (i.e. stop) and how to state their name and address.
- Use identification and location – For some children, purchasing a medical alert bracelet or GPS monitoring system, like AngelSense, can be very helpful. If using a medical alert bracelet or dog tag, you also want to keep information about the child up-to-date.
- Develop an emergency plan – If your child were to elope tomorrow, do you know what to do? Or who to call? If not, implement a emergency plan with a plan of action with phone numbers of local first responders and family members.
How does the school system handle elopement?
If your child is an eloper at school, this constitutes major safety issues for the child and school. For students who display elopement behavior, a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) should be conducted to address this behavior. In the FBA, it should address the frequency of the behavior, what happens before and after the behavior occurs and any patterns that are seen in the behavior. Your child then should have a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) to address this behavior if/when it occurs. Make sure the BIP specifically addresses the elopement behavior and not just relatable behaviors to elopement.
When you have to take things a step further
Having a FBA and BIP in place for your child if they elope should not be difficult. School districts want to provide safety for your child (and protect themselves) while they are at school. But what if the FBA and BIP are not working or it is not addressing the needs of your child? If this is the case, the first thing you want to do is to reconvene as a IEP team to discuss why the behavior keeps happening. No child should be continually escaping from school. They may attempt to, but their attempts are quickly negated, as per the BIP in place.
If this keeps happening, you will have to take things a step further. For example, you also may want to get involved in your school and district safety committees to see what you can do in the community for safety. You also want to check class ratios to determine if this is a staffing issue. Also, investigate how your child keeps eloping. Are they escaping through the same doors/windows? Is it the same time of day? Does the school doors have alarms? These are all questions that need to be (should have been) addressed for the safety of your child.
One of the worst feelings a parent can feel is when their child is lost. Make sure you go through these steps, your child’s behavior is addressed at school and you have an emergency plan in place.
Has your child ever eloped?