Review of Elopement of Children With Autism

Walker, H. and McAdam, D. (2015). Elopement of Children with Autism: What we know, successful interventions, and practical tips for parents and caregivers. New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA).

Reviewed by Tiffany Kilby, MS, BCBA

What is Elopement?

Elopement, also known as wandering or bolting, describes an individual’s behavior of leaving an area without permission or supervision. Elopement puts an individual, especially one with autism or related developmental disabilities, at risk for harm. Why Does Elopement Occur?

  • Functional assessments (a behavior analysis method of investigating the causes of behavior) have demonstrated several reasons for elopement, which vary from person to person,
  • Individuals may elope to avoid something, to obtain access to an item, activity, or person, or to engage in an intrinsically pleasurable activity such as running.
  • There is no research or evidence to support the hypothesis that individuals elope as a result of physiological arousal or access to repetitive behavior.

Procedures Used to Effectively Decrease Elopement

  • Non-contingent reinforcement (NCR) – This technique provides access to the consequences motivating elopement available to the individual on a time-based schedule in order to decrease motivation to elope. For example, if it is determined that a child elopes to access a certain food, then that food is made available at regular intervals. The result is a decrease in elopement.
  • Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO; AKA DR0; “zero-responding”) – This strategy delivers a preferred item after a certain period in which elopement did not occur.
  • Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) – In this scenario, the parent or professional delivers a preferred item contingent (i.e., presented in close succession to the target desired, alternative behavior) on behaviors that are alternatives to elopement. For example, walking instead of running.
  • Functional communication training (FCT) – The individual is taught to communicate what they want, rather than eloping to gain access to it. For example, if an individual elopes to receive attention from others, in FCT he/she would be taught a more appropriate behavior to gain attention. 
  • Antecedent manipulations and environmental modifications – This technique changes the environment to decrease the likelihood of elopement or making elopement not an option.

Practical Tips for Parents and Caregivers (the original document has useful links)

Assessment

  • Keep detailed, written records of elopement.
  • Consult with a behavior analyst about conducting a functional assessment and the benefits and risks of conducting a functional analysis.

Prevention

  • Ensure that an individual with a history of eloping behavior has emergency identification on him or her at all times.
  • Explore other possible safeguards that can be put in place in case elopement occurs.

Safety Skills

  • Work with your team of teachers and service providers (e.g., behavior analysts) to teach safety skills.
  • Learn CPR and First Aid.

Communication

  • Share your contact information and information about the elopement to individuals in your neighborhood.
  • Communicate with local law enforcement and emergency responders about your child and the risk of elopement.

Elopement can be a very dangerous behavior for a variety of reasons, making it a crucial behavior to address and eliminate. A functional analysis, that is, finding out the reason that elopement occurs, is very important when possible, and developing a procedure based on the functional analysis increases the success rates of decreasing elopement and teaching alternative behaviors. Note: It is critical that competent, well-trained individuals with expertise in applied behavior analysis (ABA) conduct these procedures.

Download the full document here.

Please use the following format to cite this article:

Kilby, T. (2015). Review of Elopement of children with autism. Science in Autism Treatment, 12(1), 3-4.