Elopement—The Escaping Child

Elopement is something almost all parents of children with autism have experienced at one time or another. Elopement in connection with autism means that the child escapes from home and wanders off alone. It makes for sleepless nights and jittery nerves.

Take the time to view your house as your child would. How can you prevent elopement?

  • Put extra locks on all doors that open to the outside.

  • Install a security system that monitors people entering and leaving.

  • Buy an alarm that will hang on doors to use when away from home.

  • Get a service animal (a dog is most useful for this problem).

  • Establish a routine: The child never leaves the house unsupervised.

  • Inform trusted neighbors of the possibility of elopement.

  • Notify the local police department of the possibility of elopement.

There are other things you can do to promote your peace of mind as you protect your child's safety. A large family can work in shifts so that someone always has an eye on the child with autism. If Mom can't cook dinner or even escape to the bathroom for a few minutes, stress levels will rise and tempers will get shorter. The entire family must work together to lessen the stress on each family member.

One solution that will work for any individual with autism, regardless of age or size, is a double-keyed dead bolt. A key is required on either side of the door to lock or unlock this type of dead bolt. If you choose this method, the most important habit to develop is to have a key with you at all times! Put a chain around your neck with the key and have a key well hidden near the door. If a fire should break out, having a double-lock dead bolt can turn a safe situation into a deadly trap.

Having your child wear an identification bracelet is one of the easiest, and most important, steps parents can take. MedicAlert sells an inexpensive bracelet that can be engraved with your child's name, address, and telephone number. Anyone calling the Medic Alert number, 1-800-423-6333, will reach a physician and specific information will be available about your child. Above the child's name have printed “Nonverbal Autistic” or “Limited Verbal Autistic” so that people are immediately aware of the child's situation.

Fact

Children with autism usually outgrow the elopement problem, but there are children who never do. They are fortunately in the minority. It is unclear if they simply lose interest or if they realize the level of danger, but the important thing is that this is probably not a life sentence.

Special Considerations

If you live near any potentially dangerous situations, such as water or a busy road, it is imperative you have a locking safety system even if your child is not prone to elopement. All it would take is one escape, and a child with autism could easily drown or be hit by a car. Children with autism have been known to walk right in front of a moving car because they lack the ability to understand danger.

It is also wise to contact the city government for the town in which you live so that special road signs can be placed on both ends of your street to send a warning to drivers. It is wise to request a sign that says either “Disabled child at play” or “Deaf child at play.” The sign for deafness is the most efficient, as drivers will then be aware that a child may be unaware of them. A sign that says “Child with autism at play,” although accurate, can be less than helpful due to the lack of knowledge among the general public regarding autism.

Essential

If you buy an identification bracelet, be sure to purchase one with a secure fastener. It should be made of stainless steel and have enough links on it to grow with your child. Put it on your child's nondominant hand so it won't interfere with her daily activities.

One of the most frightening forms of elopement can occur in the car. Without the realization of danger, a child with autism may open a car door while the car is moving. Always have your child safety-belted, and place her in a car seat if she is under sixty pounds.

Many of the newer cars automatically lock when the car is started. If your car doesn't have this feature, take it to a mechanic or dealer to have the inside door handle removed on the child's side. In the case of an accident or other emergency, it is important that the other side of the car can quickly be exited. If you can't find anyone to remove the handle, remove it yourself with a wrench and hammer. The cost of the repair, if you wish to have it replaced, is insignificant compared to the tragedy of a child opening the door and falling out of a moving car.

Rental Housing and the Law

Laws provide for reasonable accommodation for a disabled person in rental housing. If you have a child who elopes,

or escapes, it is your right to have locks installed on the inside of doorways that the child is unable to open. For younger children, consider installing slide bars placed out of reach. If you have an older child, request a keyed dead bolt. One trick that works well with a slide bar is to place it slightly out of alignment; the door handle then has to be lifted slightly, and a younger child is unable to manage this on his own.

Fact

Even if a child cannot escape through a window, it is possible that things you own will escape quite easily. Children with autism are still children, and there seems to be great entertainment in throwing items out of windows. Be sure your screens are adequate to keep bugs out and appliances in!

If you live in rental housing, you may also ask your landlord to install window locks. In a pinch, a sliding window frame can have a nail hammered into it that will prevent the window from being opened any further than desired. There are ways to jury-rig other window styles, and until a permanent fix can be implemented, don't hesitate to do what you need to do to prevent an escape.

The law provides for reasonable accommodation for disabilities. You can't demand remodeling that is frivolous, unreasonable, or abusive of the disability laws, but safety and security are reasonable expectations. Asking the landlord to fence the entire yard so your child can play outside is unreasonable; but if you live in a rental with inadequate locks or other safety concerns, the landlord must immediately address and correct these issues without penalty of eviction.

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