Autism, Eloping and AWOL

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walkingWhen  Ethan was very young, he hardly slept and always had the urge to run away. Luckily, we used to live in building with a 24 hour doorman and the doorman was always there to make sure that Ethan never got away.

We moved to a house and we thought we had everything under control. We put bungee cords around the front door handles and a deadbolt to make sure that Ethan could not leave. One morning at 5:30am we were woken up by a loud banging on the front door. It was the police. They entered the house aggressively and demanded that my husband get his wife (that’s me) right away. The police had found Ethan wondering the streets with just a T-shirt on and wanted to arrest us for being negligent with our  special needs son. He is nonverbal and could not tell them where he lived. They had asked people in the streets if they knew where this child lives. The neighbors guided them to our house.

After we showed the police all the extent to which we had tried to prevent him from leaving, they became more lenient and even tried to suggest other ways to keep him safe.

Through the years, Ethan has eloped several more times but each time we learned more ways to keep him from going AWOL. There are many parents who are going through the angst and pain of having their child leave the house.

The first thing we tried was a medic alert bracelet with contact information. Ethan was sensory, and so after 3 days of chewing on the metal band, he finally took it off. Putting anything in his shoes was a waste, as he tended to run away half naked and barefoot.

What did work was the following:

  1. We took a photo of Ethan and a written description of him with emergency contact information and dropped a copy at every police and fire station in our neighborhood.
  2.  We took the same photo and went to all the neighbors including their kids within 2 blocks of our house and showed them the photo and told them that if they ever saw him on the streets to notify us immediately. This was the most effective method as the neighborhood kids found him on several occasions and I’m sure that the rewards we gave them after the first time was a great motivator for the future times.
  3. We also installed keypad exit locks on all the exit doors from the house (it’s a pain to keep looking for keys).
  4. We found that keeping him calm reduced the frequency of eloping. The best methods we found were at least an hour of daily exercise (even walking helps). Walking on the beach, the side of a river or anywhere calming is great. We also gave Ethan a mp3 player as he loves music and this keeps him calm and content.
  5.  We used social stories and taught Ethan about not walking in the middle of the road and waiting for the green light to cross. We also encouraged him to always walk with someone else.
  6.  We found that the older he got, the better we became at keeping him calm and the more he could communicate, the more he understood.
  7.  Research shows that the more overstimulated the brain, the more risks we take. No wonder autistic kids with super overstimulated brains do not “understand” the concept of danger. Calm them down.

NB If you ever drive your autistic child in the car, put a copy of the photo and description and an explanation that your child is autistic and in the pocket in the backseat. If you are ever in an accident and are unable to respond, the first responders will look for ID and find the instructions for keeping your child safe. 

By Dalia Shkedy – Ethan’s Mom

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