Elopement and Autism | Causes | Solutions | IEP Goals

Autism and Elopement

One concept or behavior that you may be exposed to as an IEP parent is elopement. Unfortunately, I am not talking about the fun kind of elopement. The kind where you run off to Vegas or some tropical island and marry your love.

This is the type where your child is so incredibly stressed out that they remove themselves from the situation. To add insult to injury, many schools treat this punitively and punish after the fact rather than look for reasons to prevent it in the first place.

young girl running off elopement

Definition of Elopement

What is elopement? Here are a few things to know, if you are talking with your team about this.

  1. Elopement is not a defined term per IDEA. IDEA does not regulate it nor even mention it. It is a specific behavior that can be defined as “leaving a specific area without permission.” It basically means escaping a situation.
  2. Elopement is not limited to school. Many parents report this happening in other places with their child.
  3. Elopement is not limited to autistic people. For the purposes of this article, we’re mostly going to be talking about autistic students and school. But, any child can elope from a situation at school.

You’ve heard of “fight or flight” syndrome, right?

Well, elopement is FLIGHT.

Why do some autistic students elope?

Sensory issues and sensory processing often play a large role. Elopement is a behavior. But, remember the mantra “All behavior tells you something.” It is our duty as IEP team members and caregivers to ask ourselves “What is this child trying to communicate to us?”

Some answers might be:

  1. Child has had demands put on them that they cannot meet, and they do not know how to appropriately process and respond to the situation. In their head, they quickly went to “fight or flight” and chose flight.
  2. They may be on sensory overload. Many child have different interoception than we do. The situation they were in may be too hot, too cold, too noisy, a smell they cannot tolerate, a sound that we may not even hear but it overwhelming to them and so on.
  3. They may be on sensory underload. In other words, they need a sensory or movement break. Running out of a classroom and down a hall may provide them with the gross motor movement their body is craving. I always say–If a child needs a sensory break, they’re going to take a sensory break; whether or not it’s in the IEP.
  4. There may be processing issues or something else going on that we do not see, understand or perceive. Fatigue and exhaustion, stress, bullying that we are not detecting, an upset stomach…it could be anything.

But whatever it is, the child has chosen “flight” in fight or flight, so we need to get to the bottom of it.

Fight or Flight Response has been defined by psychologists as:

The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee.

Because let me tell you this–you cannot override your sympathetic nervous system if you don’t have the skills to do so.

Can I get a 1:1 Aide for Elopement?

Many parents (mistakenly) think that eloping is a slam dunk for getting a 1:1 aide. And, I have heard over the years that many schools tell parents “Only kids who elope get a 1:1 aide.”

Both are incorrect.

The main principle of IDEA is Individualization. IDEA does not define who gets a 1:1 para and who does not. Nor do any state regs, to my knowledge. A school may have this policy, but again, that would go against the main principle of IDEA-Individualization. There are no hard and fast rules as to who gets what services.

All supports and services are based on the child’s needs which should be identified in IEP Present Levels.

Should a Child get a 1:1 Aide for eloping?

If I had to choose… and I mean, there is no gray area, you have to pick one answer–my answer would be no.

And here’s why.

First, I get it. Elopement is scary, particularly if a child makes it out of the building or out of the playground. I get it–I really do.

But, it has been my experience that getting an aide for this is a band-aid solution.

Because usually all the aide does is verbally or physically prompt the child and prevent them from leaving. This does not address the core issue–why does the child want to escape the situation?

autistic child eloping from school

The aide ends up being a bodyguard or babysitter of some kind and prevents the child from eloping. However, the child is still fully immersed in the stressful situation–the situation that was so stressful they want to leave.

This “solution” often forces kids through their perceptions and interoception.

Forced to Endure Intolerable Situations

Let me give you an example. (and please know that I am not a horrible parent, I truly was listening to my child and this whole thing transpired very quickly)

We recently received tickets to a Sixers game for Autism Acceptance Day. We love basketball, so we went. We had our reservations about taking K, as he does not like loud noises and some crowds.

So, I investigated the accommodations beforehand.

  • We would be in Club Box seats, so not in a crowded row of seats. A Club Box is sort of like a lobby or small restaurant. It has tables, chairs, a bar, sofas and place to roam. They overlook the court.
  • He could sit in his wheelchair the entire time if he so chose, we would not have to sit in a stadium seat.
  • There were noise cancelling headphones available to us, among other accommodations.

But, guess what? None of that was enough and we did not even last the first quarter of the game. In fact, he was so upset at the noise, that he began to cough and gag. At the first sign of significant distress, he and I left. We spent half the game in the sensory room (a completely quiet room with sofas and a large TV) and the rest sitting in the car.

My husband and other son stayed. It was amazing to see K’s transformation the minute we entered the sensory room. He was instantly fine. He got comfortable with the toys and beanbags they had on the floor and immediately began interacting with the other kids in there.

If you transfer this situation to a similar one in a classroom, what would an aide do? She likely would verbally remind him to not leave. She would perhaps tap his arm, put her hand on his shoulder or back and other prompts to tell him that he does not have permission to leave.

But the child could still be sitting in a situation that is literally making them ill because it is so distressing. The “solution” is forcing them to endure an intolerable situation.

How is this helpful?

If you are going to get an aide for your eloping autistic child, make sure it is one who is trained in your child’s issues. And, one who can not just verbally prompt him, but offer the teaching repetition that the child needs to manage the skill deficiencies.

Elopement Strategies at School

If a child is eloping, it is essential that a thorough FBA is done. Most FBAs are not thorough.

Most of the FBAs and Behavior Plans that I see for this issue are all the same ineffective garbage. Stuff like “child wanted to escape situation” and the remedy is verbal prompts to remind them not to leave.

The team must get to the root of the issue.

What is so distressing to this child that they physically are unable to remain in the situation for another moment? Fight or Flight–what is causing the Fight or Flight response?

Again, you cannot override your sympathetic nervous system if you do not have the tools and skills to do so.

stressed out teen

We’ve all left work meetings and situations where we’ve walked away saying….”omigosh! I could not take it one more minute!”

But guess what? You could take it another minute. And you did. Because even though you were in an uncomfortable or stressful situation, you were able to override the fight or flight response.

Many kids cannot do this. Particularly those with learning disabilities.

School Elopement as a Behavior

So, you may have gotten this far. And, you’re thinking, “Ok, great. But honestly, isn’t some student eloping due to behaviors?”

Well, sure. And no.

First, autism eloping as a behavior should be considered last. Consider all the other things first–skill sets, sensory, interoception, etc.

Then, ok, sure. You’re thinking of the student who is supposed to be doing class work and instead just dashes out to the playground. Surely that’s behavioral, right?

I’d argue that child lacks a skill set–impulse control. Impulse control can be very difficult to teach. Especially for students who are unaffected by social norms and peer pressure.

child holding candy

Do you remember a few years ago, when there was that social media trend called “the toddler challenge?” Basically parents set their toddlers and preschoolers up with a camera and candy. They put candy right in front of them, told them not to touch it or eat it, and left the room with a phone camera catching all the action.

Sure, it’s cute and some of them were very funny. America’s Funniest Videos dedicated several segments to it. The Today Show called it the Fruit Snack challenge. You can watch some of it below.

But it’s also a case study in preschoolers and impulse control. The children who chose to disobey their parents and eat the candy are not bad, misbehaving kids. They simply lacked the impulse control to leave the candy on the counter.

Think of autistic students eloping from the same perspective. Their instinct, their impulse, is telling them to leave the room.

Elopement and Your IEP

All of this to say…. my advice and guidance on this is going to remain the same, what I say for most issues.

If the team is suggesting goals like “Child will reduce eloping incidents by X number in X days…” to me, that is a huge red flag. The reduced incidents will be the data that the plan is working, but should not be the goal.

The goal should be something like, “When given a challenging task or new skill to perform, Child will appropriately voice concerns by…”

Or, “When encountering an uncomfortable situation (define, based upon the child), Child will raise hand to indicate they are going to XYZ and take a sensory break.”

When you put the reduced incidents as the goal, that will encourage staff to focus on the wrong thing in my opinion–just stopping the behavior, and not teaching the skills needed to reduce the behavior.

  1. Document the situations. Look for common themes and antecedents. Get a thorough FBA that gets to the root cause.
  2. The child will need accommodations and teaching. They are going to need to be taught the skills that are lacking; the lacking skills that are triggering the fight or flight response. No, this is not a fast and easy solution. There is no fast and easy solution to this.
  3. IEP goals for elopement should focus on self regulation, self advocacy and the child being able to self identify these stressful situations and communicate them appropriately.
  4. Accommodations should include the child’s surroundings–get their input as much as possible. Is it too noisy (headphones maybe?), too bright (move seat away from window?), too drafty (move away from draft?) or whatever it is that is making them uncomfortable. I’m not asking any team to demo and rebuild a classroom–but there are many reasonable options out there.

I have a separate post about using GPS trackers like AngelSense for your child at school. This is not something you should just buy and attach to your child without understanding it first. Many of them record, and that may go against recording laws in your state.

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