For parents and caregivers of children living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), autism elopement or bolting can be a common yet stressful cause of concern.
There are some ways in which you can understand why it happens and how you can prevent it.
Understanding in detail some reasons why autism bolting can occur might directly help you understand how to stop a child with autism from running off, and how you can keep your child safe from any harm when such an incident does occur.
Why Does Autism Bolting Happen?
What exactly is autism elopement? Also known as autism bolting or wandering, it describes a situation when an individual living with ASD leaves a designated area without permission or supervision.
Elopement is a common occurrence among not just those who live with ASD particularly, but also among individuals living with mental disorders of any kind.
When a child gets separated from their parents, it can be terrifying for all parties involved. But this stress is certainly more exacerbated when the child is also dealing with a mental illness such as autism.
It can be an extremely scary situation for parents, who might fear that the child might put themself in danger, or that somebody else could pose a threat to their child.
Kidnapping, accidents, and getting lost are fearful thoughts that might run through their head. Other environmental risks also include dehydration, heat strokes, drowning, hypothermia, and more.
But why might a child living with autism run off in the first place? Research suggests a variety of reasons:
Feeling the need to escape stress or overstimulation.
Stress, in this case, could be the result of a sensory overload for children, especially for those that live with autism.
Loud noises, crowded places, bright television or lights, or places with strong odors might force the child into trying to escape that environment.
Especially in crowded areas, this could easily result in guardians losing track of where their children are.
Chasing something desirable.
Children often get attracted by things they might find exciting, whether it be a mobile or an immovable object.
Such items can include a particular toy, a fluttering butterfly, or even a person. As a result of this attraction, the child might run after or towards the object, and might get separated by their parents.
Being chased themselves.
Kids often enjoy being chased by other children or by adults.
While such a little game might appear joyful and harmless, the child might elope in case a caregiver is distracted, even if it is just for a second.
Attraction to water.
Studies have shown that individuals living with ASD tend to be attracted to water, which can lead them to wander off in the direction of a body of water like a pool, fountain, pond, or a lake.
This can be dangerous, since children dealing with a cognitive disorder such as ASD often have little to no sense of danger, especially at a younger age. Drowning has proven to be a leading cause of death among children with ASD.
To gain attention.
Children generally tend to perform activities to try and attract an adult’s attention towards them.
Feeling neglected or ignored might lead a child to run away as a game to gather attention.
This can also happen if a child is receiving negative attention, i.e., they are being reprimanded.
Unfamiliar environments, vacation destinations, and public outings can also be situations of too many stressors for children dealing with ASD, who generally rely on routine and familiarity for comfort.
Escaping an unwanted task.
Nobody likes being forced to do anything, especially children; young children especially have a tendency to run away when made to do anything they don’t like.
Such tasks can include completing their homework, or eating a meal they don’t enjoy.
How to Prevent Autism Elopement
It is important to note that elopement can occur anywhere, at any time of the day.
Even if the child is in a safe space like their home, or school, autism bolting is still a possibility, and careful precautions must always be taken to prevent any such situation.
There are many such measures you can take to ensure the safety of your child.
Such tips can be divided into two aspects: things you can do outside the house, and things you can do inside the house.
For the first, you might have less control over the situation, but there are still some things you can do to help.
For the latter, since the home is a safe space for the child, it is a much more controlled environment, and therefore there are many more things you can look after.
Outside the Home Space:
- Perhaps the most helpful thing you can do is to have your child wear a device that will allow you to track their location at all times. There are many devices that also send you an alert if your child crosses a certain perimeter.
- Have your child carry around a card or ID bracelet that contains important details such as the guardian’s name, address, phone number, and other factors that might be important in a situation of emergency.
- Ensure that any chaperone who goes with the child anywhere carries a picture of the child (in case the child does wander off), all necessary medical information, and any toys/food/items that might be calming for the child. Having these items on hand can help a caregiver keep a clear mind in stressful situations, something that’s extremely important for the safety of the child in question.
- Any items that might help if the child is exposed to too many sensations should also be carried when stepping out of the house. Such things might include earphones for some soothing music in areas of loud noises, or sunglasses or hats in case the place might entail very bright lights.
- Contact your local police and fire departments and let them know that your child has elopement tendencies. If they are non-verbal or may act in a non-typical manner, let them know what they can expect.
Inside the Home Space:
- Creating a stress-free environment inside the home is helpful in making the space a reinforcing, positive one for your child. Eliminate any items that you think might cause a sensory overload and become stressors for them. If common or important to the rest of the household, these can strategically be reintroduced into your child’s environment as he or she learns the skills for handling these challenging stressors in a healthy way.
- Secure your home. Install security systems, locks, alarms, and even fences to not allow your child to escape at all.
- Inform your neighbors that autism elopement is a possibility, and that it will be helpful if they stay prepared as well. In case your child manages to wander out of the door, your neighbors can help by alerting you.
- Help your child memorize important details such as your home address and your emergency contact number.
- Teach your child alternative behaviors so that you can eliminate the possibility of them escaping an unpleasant situation. For example, if your child tends to elope when confronted with a situation where they are reprimanded, you can teach your child to communicate with you that they don’t like it, instead of bolting. Similarly, if they’re too stressed in any event, they can let you know in other ways.
- Maintaining a good and healthy routine will prove very beneficial to ensure your child is not too stressed by regular changes. A good bedtime routine for a child with autism can involve calming activities before bed, such as reading or listening to music, taking care of their body, skin, and teeth, and going to bed early.
- Investing in a special bed for children with special needs can also be a great idea. Our Cubby Beds are smart sleep systems, specially designed to regulate sleep, safety, and stimuli for children. Poor sleep can be a common stressor for children living with autism, and our beds are dedicated to preventing that. They are also padded, covered with safety sheets, and monitored by cameras to ensure complete safety. And the calm environment that a Cubby creates will be perfect to de-stress after exposure to large amounts of stimuli over the day.
Conclusion: How to Prevent Elopement
Emergencies can happen to anybody, but there are also strategies you can follow to prevent them, at least to a certain extent.
Especially for families living with ASD, such emergencies can be a little trickier to deal with. It is always important to have an emergency plan prepared and ready.
Understanding reasons for why autism elopement can occur, and paying particular attention to why it happens with your child, will enable you to make plans that can help prevent those particular situations.
Take note of such reasons, and take all necessary measures.
Apart from things like having your child carry items that will help you keep track of them, or installing safety measures in your home, it is also important to focus on your child internally to prevent such situations entirely.
Training your child to communicate and to behave in alternative manners will be the best prevention strategy of all.
Investing in a Cubby Bed can also be very beneficial as it is an easy way to add some calm and comfort to your child’s bedtime routine.
And lastly, but most importantly, as parents and caregivers, it is always important to remember that such situations are out of your control, and are therefore never your fault.
There is never any reason you should blame yourself in the event that your child does elope. Living with ASD is already tough, and there is no reason you should make it any harder for yourself. You’re doing great!
An Option for Better Sleep
If you have a loved one living with autism, a great step for preventing elopement and helping both your child and your family get a better night’s sleep, then you should certainly consider looking into Cubby Beds.
Cubby Beds have:
- A fully enclosable canopy with Inside “lock pockets” to prevent nighttime elopement
- Monitoring features so you can check in on your child without waking them or even leaving your bed
- Sensory features like a circadian light and speakers to help your child find a safe, calming environment where they can sleep
- Safety sheets to prevent entrapment
- A humidity sensor to detect accidents, a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector, all to ensure that your baby is safe.
The best news is: many families qualify for help from their insurance plans, or even full reimbursement. Get in touch with us and we can help you work out a pricing plan that works best for you. It’s the first step to getting you on your way to better sleep.
Our Use of Descriptive Language
We want to accommodate and speak to all types of people with varying backgrounds and opinions. We are aware of the current debate in the mental health sphere between descriptor-first language, i.e. “an autistic person” vs. person-first language, i.e. “a person with autism.” Because many people have preferences either on one side or the other, we have chosen to accommodate both sides by using varying ways of describing people. With that being said, we are always learning. We hope to create a secure and welcoming online environment on our page, so if you have a preference regarding this language, please message us and we’d love to discuss further.
We conduct in depth research and consult with credentialed experts. Medicine is a constantly changing science and art and while we double check all facts, advice can vary. One doctor or therapist may have different opinions than others. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.