by the Northeast Arc Autism ABA Services Team

We’ve heard a lot about raising “free range” kids, giving them plenty of unstructured time and opportunity to explore their own interests and world. For families with children with “elopement” behavior (running away, wandering off, bolting off), the phrase “free range” may instill panic or seem out of the question for their child. Trips to the park, soccer practice, the walk from the house to the car, even unsupervised time in a friend’s house could result in elopement behavior. Here are some steps that may help:

Take necessary safety precautions.
This can mean notifying the police and fire departments of your child’s needs and information, securing exit points in your home and yard, installing bells or chimes. Investing in identification bracelets, teaching your child his or her name, address and telephone number, and considering a GPS device are all good ideas. When going to a new place, talk to people ahead of time and ask questions so you can feel more comfortable and prepared. 

Teach skills.
Understanding the drive behind the bolting can help us in teaching a replacement skill. Is your child looking back and laughing, thinking running is a game? Teach the child to request “chase” or “tag” and the appropriate places, then giving them plenty of opportunity to do so when appropriate, may help. Does your child bolt to escape an unpleasant trip or loud sound? Knowing the triggers can help you be prepared beforehand to provide a warning, gain physical proximity so you can intervene, and prompt your child to request to leave, so you can help him or her exit safely. Does your child bolt towards favorite toys? Prompting for communication before the bolt or keeping a preferred item close by so that he or she doesn’t need to run away may help. Does your child just love to run? Finding ways to channel that energy into appropriate, safe activities (sports, swimming) may reduce the impulse to engage in the behavior whenever an opportunity presents.

Set yourself up for success.
• Review expectations. Just before moving to a space where bolting is possible, review expected behaviors and have the child practice. Give yourself plenty of time to do this so it doesn’t feel rushed for you or the child.

• Bring back up. Invite extra people who you can trust to help support you and your family so you have more energy to enjoy the experience.

• Be realistic. Choose activities that you think you can be successful with. An 8-hour day at the beach with three young kids and one adult may not be it. A picnic to a park with a fence and the babysitter may be smaller scale, but ultimately more fun.

It’s summer, and as adults we all know the feeling of just wanting to take off, get away, and explore new things. Planning for safety and teaching communication can help shape that impulse and nurture healthy curiosity we can all appreciate.

To learn more about Northeast Arc’s Autism ABA Services, click here.