What is Elopement Behavior and How Does It Relate to ABA Therapy
When a child elopes or wanders away from the safety of their home and the security of their guardian, panic often erupts. Elopement can happen quickly, even when the child is under close supervision. Reports show that parents oftentimes do not feel prepared to address these situations. Families need access to tools and resources to help not only reactively, like involvement from police and firefighters, but proactively as well.
Applied behavior analysis therapy, or ABA, is a scientifically-supported tool that parents can use that explores why an individual might wander away, and can provide families with guidance and assistance in navigating those situations. ABA offers parents one-on-one training and meetings to assist in creating plans that work with each family’s needs while being able to work one-on-one with the child too.
Elopement can be scary, and it is difficult to ever feel fully prepared to address such difficult situations. Both proactive and reactive tools are important in understanding exactly what elopement is and what the potential causes are. Only then can experiencing such a terrifying situation feel more manageable.
What is elopement behavior?
Elopement, also called wandering, is when someone leaves a safe area or a responsible caregiver for any given time without permission or even knowledge of the caregiver. It is frequently observed in a child with an intellectual disability or in autistic children, regardless of their skills or cognitive abilities. Elopement behaviors can include a child unexpectedly running out of a room, down an aisle of a store, across a parking lot, or towards a busy street. As such, elopement means a significant risk of your child experiencing a more dangerous consequence, such as drowning or traffic injury.
Elopement behaviors can happen anywhere, and according to the CDC, children most often elope from places of familiarity, such as familiar homes, stores, and schools. Unfortunately, elopement isn’t something that only a small percentage of families experience while at home or at the store. According to a survey completed by parents, 49% of autistic children have attempted to elope at least once after the age of 4, and 26% of them were missing long enough to cause concern from the family or caretaker. Out of those missing children due to wandering behavior, 24% were in danger of drowning while 65% were in danger of obtaining a traffic injury.
Autistic children are not only at a higher likelihood of engaging in wandering behavior but assisting in getting them home or back to their loved one can often prove to be a more complex situation. Some individuals might have difficulty responding to their names or communicating personal information that might help make it easier for others to assist them. Some children might require one special person who is closest to them to approach and get them to safety, or it might take a team of people responding to assist in getting them back to their home.
Knowing your child’s needs and establishing a plan for when you find your child is equally important as establishing your plan for when your child first goes missing. One resource families can use is part of Autism Speaks’s Autism Safety Project called “First Responder Toolkit: A guide to searching for Missing Persons on the Autism Spectrum.” This provides first responders guidance on how to engage with autistic individuals and provides a form that can be used to assist first responders in knowing how to engage with a child. It can also provide them with important information such as what they like and do not like, likely places to go, and signals of escalation.
What causes elopement?
There is not one simple answer as to why an autistic person might engage in elopement. Each person is unique and has different motives, skill sets, and a unique understanding of how their environment works. One reason suggested by the CDC is that an autistic child might elope to just enjoy running or exploring. They also stated that some might see something that catches their interest, so they elope to inspect or play with it. Children might elope to go to a place they enjoy (like a swimming pool or a playground) or to escape an undesirable situation or setting.
One proactive response that families can take is to best understand why the child might elope from their known environments and guardians. Since there are many reasons why the child might elope, and sometimes it is unclear, seeking professional help to understand the function of the behavior can be a beneficial option for families.
Does ABA help with elopement?
Applied Behavior Analysis, also called ABA, is an individualized treatment available to those with Autism spectrum disorder that looks at a wide variety of behaviors (such as elopement and wondering, communication, social skills, attention, etc.) and how the behavior is affected by the environment. ABA uses scientifically supported tools to assist in the development of stronger communication skills, social skills, and daily living skills, while also focusing on decreasing potentially dangerous behaviors such as elopement.
With ABA, each child has their own behavior analyst who, through direct and indirect observations, creates an intervention plan and essential learning objectives. Parents and caregivers have a chance to meet with their child’s behavior analyst and talk about why their child is engaging in elopement behavior. The analyst can help explore the function of the behavior, and through continuous parent training, help develop what ABA professionals call a BIP or behavior intervention plan.
In creating a behavior intervention plan, the behavior analyst will discuss various components such as preventive options, likely triggers, and how best to respond if the child attempts to, or succeeds, in eloping. Some preventative options discussed will likely include learning opportunities for the child that could serve as an effective replacement option for wandering. These replacement options might target communication, such as asking for items or activities that are out of sight or asking for a break. Through parent training with the analyst, further exploration of how to design the home environment to include additional safety measures or how to use electronic tracking devices can also take place.
How do you respond to elopement behavior in ABA?
Each child is unique, and the reasons why a child might wander or elope can vary. How the treating therapist will analyze the situation and make recommendations will also vary. The flexibility and the individualized approach of ABA allow for more successful interventions, as they can be created with your child, your neighborhood, and your available resources in mind.
Collaboration with the family is key for any ABA professional to succeed. At Ivy Rehab for Kids, our ABA experts believe in family participation, and we want to hear our families’ concerns, stresses, and successes. Frequent parent training with the BCBA will incorporate behavioral skills training (BST), making it so that a written BIP is not something that families simply read on a sheet of paper, but something that they feel confident in executing.
ABA Therapy Can Help
If you’re interested in learning more about ABA therapy, please reach out to one of the locations near you to discuss next steps or recommendations for getting started. Click here to find a location near you.
Article By: Amanda Manning, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA
Amanda began her ABA career 7 years ago. Amanda loves her job and heavily believes in the importance of providing compassionate and individualized treatment. She enjoys working with children of all ages to reach their goals. Amanda currently treats patients at Ivy Rehab for Kids ABA in DeWitt, Michigan.
Anderson, C., Law, J. K., Daniels, A., Rice, C., Mandell, D. S., Hagopian, L., & Law, P. A. (2012). Occurrence and family impact of elopement in children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 130(5), 870–877. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-0762
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Autism Speaks. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2022, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/applied-behavior-analysis
Disability and Safety: Information on Wandering (Elopement). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Retrieved November 14, 2022, from Disability and Safety: Information on Wandering (Elopement) | CDC
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