Running Off and Autism
We’ve had several families in contact recently with concerns about children running off or absconding. Unfortunately, this is a common concern among families of children with autism. This can cause huge stress for the family, and is quite life limiting as many find themselves avoiding taking their child out for fear of them running off. It’s quite understandable, and sometimes absolutely necessary, to take these preventative measures. However, it’s important to have a closer think about why the behaviour is occurring.
In this blog, we’ll consider the many different approaches you might take to tackling concerns about running off.
Because of the potential risk associated with running off or wandering, it’s really important to start with all of the proactive or preventative things you might do to minimize risk. These strategies will do little to address why a child may run off and won’t teach relevant skills, but they will help keep a child safe. You might consider the following:
- Modify the home environment to make it safer. Use locks that you’re child can’t open and/or consider alarms. Place bells on playroom doors or bedroom doors to notify you as necessary of movement in the home.
- Consider tracking devices. There are a number of commercially available GPS trackers now available. Some that we are aware of include personal GPS Trax, WatchOvers, and Personal GPS Sim Tracker V8. Angelsense has received good reviews, although service is only available to those of you reading from the UK (or further abroad in US and Canada). Each product has different features and range, so you’ll want to be sure to find the one that suits your needs.
- Always have a current picture of your child. This is quite easy these days with smartphones, but in particular, if you’re headed out to a crowded destination or special event, take a picture in the day’s outfit.
- Talk to the neighbors and even local gardai. Explain that you have a child that may wander and be sure they know how to respond, who to contact, and how. You’ll find some relevant samples available for download here.
- It is also often recommended that parents enroll their child in swim lessons, as water is one of the greatest risks to wanderers.
The Behavioural Approach
As with any behaviour of concern, the most effective strategies will be based on the function or reason for the behaviour. A BCBA or psychologist with specialist training In ABA is best positioned to help, but you can read more about functions of behaviour in our previous blog ‘How do we change behaviour.’ You’ll find that children will generally run off for one or more of the following reasons:
- They are trying to avoid something. This could be an overwhelming or unpleasant sensory experience, or possibly a non-preferred activity or transition.
- They are trying to get to something they want; a favorite toy or activity, place, special interest, or even a person.
- They may enjoy the attention and chaos; sure, who doesn’t love a good game of chase.
- It’s possible as well that they are looking for movement and enjoy the act of running/wandering itself.
You can group strategies into 3 different categories.
These are strategies or supports put in place to reduce the likelihood that the behaviour will occur. The aim is to prevent the behaviour. Locking doors and windows would be one example, but additional strategies include:
- Avoiding high-risk settings; those settings where running off is most likely to occur, or where it is riskier (e.g. open spaces with water).
- Provide preparation when going places or entering the community. Be sure the child knows where he or she will be going and what the rules or expected behaviours are. It can be helpful to use visuals such as social stories, schedules, or first then boards. Also, give them some clear way of communicating that they want to leave or go somewhere. For some, this may be words but other children might need a ‘go’ card or response programmed into their communication device.
- Always hold hands. For some individuals, for example adolescents or teens where it may not seem as appropriate to hold hands, we might have them wear a backpack that clasps in the front so it can’t slip off, and we’ll hold on to that.
- Offer items that may distract or reduce the need for the child to run off. For example, if you’ve determined that the child runs off in busy, loud settings to avoid the sounds and level of stimulation, you offer the child has noise cancelling headphones.
These are behaviours that serve the same function or purpose, that we can teach that will give the child a better way of accomplishing their goal. We also include here other behaviours that can mitigate risk. For example, teaching a child to swim in the event that they wander into water would fall into this category. Teaching these behaviours often require lots of practice and specialized strategies, and not all of these would be appropriate for all children, but the more of these skills learned, the better.
Some key behaviours include:
- Functional communication – Make sure the child has some way of asking for what it is they are seeking (e.g. toy, attention, escape)
- Appropriate walking – practice going on short walks and reinforce the child for not attempting to run away. Increase length of the walk or distraction level gradually over time.
- Responding to safety instructions – Teach your child to respond to important instructions such as ‘stop,’ ‘wait,’ and ‘come here.’
- Recognition of helpers and emergency responders – who can help
- Personal information – try to give children a way of identifying themselves or critical information that will help others get them home. For children who are non-verbal, you might teach them to present an ID card in response to ‘what is your name?’.
- Road safety – teach children where and when to cross the road
These are strategies implemented once the behaviour has occurred; it’s how we respond to the behaviour, or the outcome of the behaviour. At this point, we’re beyond the teachable moment, but we can try to make sure the behaviour doesn’t ‘work.’
- Minimize reaction to the behaviour. Obviously if a child is in an unsafe situation, you will need to intervene, but try to remain as calm. This will both reduce the ‘fun factor’ if the child enjoys the chase, but also will ensure that those children who are running off because they are distressed do not become further distressed.
- Try to make sure the behaviour doesn’t work for them. For example, if the child runs off from you to the toy section in the shop, it wouldn’t be wise to then buy them the toy they’re admiring just to get them out of the shop. You might however consider walking the child back to the original location and encouraging him or her to appropriately request the area or item they were running off to, and then have them practice walking with you.
- If the child is genuinely distressed and is not safe or appropriate to move, just remain with the child, monitoring for safety and commenting very little.
Well geez that was kind of a long read, but an important one. We hope that you are able to take something useful from it to keep your family a bit safer this summer.