When my phone beeped on my way to work, I pulled over to see the message since not thirty seconds ago I said good-bye to my family. I picked up my phone to see that the message was from P’s former fourth-grade teacher. It read, “Hi, Heather. P is at the elementary school. I’m heading home now, so is it OK if I give him a lift home?” I was confused as I was under the impression that P was staying at school until 3:45 to finish up on late work. I replied back with an emphatic, “YES and THANK YOU!” I was replaying the phone call and rereading the emails that were exchanged throughout the day to organize P staying after school. Everyone, including P, agreed that it would be great for him to stay until 3:45 at his middle school. My heart was pounding thinking I missed something. I placed a call to the middle school asking if they knew where P was and no one knew. It wasn’t until after I got the message from P’s fourth-grade teacher that I received an email from the current SPED teacher telling me that P left school.
This is not our first case of elopement. We’ve dealt with it before a few times at school and a lot of times when we are on vacation. Why do kids with autism experience more issues with elopement? I know the top two reasons we’ve personally dealt with this is 1) to escape stressful/anxious situations and 2) reach a place of comfort. Other reasons families may see elopement can be the child may enjoy running and exploring, the child wants to get to a place he/she enjoys, or the child needs to escape uncomfortable sensory stimuli.
I always struggled with how much information to share with a new school and a new teacher. I don’t want to go overboard with “Last year this and last year that.” Or “last year the teacher did this and not that.” Because in my mind, I want a clean slate. I want P to have a fair chance to make his own impression. I wouldn’t appreciate the teachers coming to make my work and telling me how things went last year and how to do it this year. I know I have to trust that the teachers will learn the quirks and ins and out of my child. It’s a balance of what to share. I definitely share likes/dislikes especially that P doesn’t like to be touched by people he doesn’t know. He likes to have his day divided up into sections to help him see the tasks that need to get done.
The first time we struggled with elopement at school when P was in elementary school. It was this same time of year, late spring with the teachers in full swing of the countdown to the end of school. We knew P was anxious about the end of school, because he is the kid who loves structure, routine, and seeing the same faces every day. At recess, P moved away to the edge of the playground and made his way to the parking lot. Thankfully, a watchful teacher followed him and calmly talked him into going back into the school. Another time, P was confined in the counselor’s office. He was feeling stressed, nervous, and anxious. He bolted out of the counselor’s office trying to escape. He was still new to his middle school, so he wasn’t exactly sure where to go to get outside of the school. It took plenty of staff to calm him down and reassure him that he wasn’t in trouble and he could return to class.
I know we have been lucky with our elopement issues. I have met other families who struggle daily in every aspect of their lives with the fear of elopement happening at any time. Alarms on beds and doors, locks up high on doors and windows, bracelets for the kids, enclosed fences in the backyard with padlocked gates just to name a few devices families are installing in and around their homes.
Other suggestions we have heard to help the children is getting them involved in swimming lessons. Many autistic children are drawn to water. Teach the children about road crossings. How to use the crosswalk and following the signals. Lots of practice and social stories of what to do if they are separated from parents, family members, or trusted adults. Stay alert and know who has eyes on the child at any given time.
Once we were able to process P leaving the school, P admitted that once he left his school he was scared. He realized that if he walked to his elementary school someone would be able to help him. I am grateful that that place will always be a safe place for him. Relationships and trust are key to our kiddo. Even though he was scared, he knew to get to a safe spot to find some help. It is time for us to develop a plan if that should happen again. We will be prepared until we know P is safe and secure.
All my best to you,