Handling Elopement for Children on The Spectrum

Make no mistake, I am a mandatory reporter. Those outside of healthcare, education, or the first-responder cohort might not be clear about what this means. A mandatory reporter is required, by law, to report any suspected child abuse or neglect. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires each State to have provisions or procedures for requiring certain individuals to report known or suspected instances of child abuse and neglect. I’m one of those individuals. And because of that, I am going to share a recent incident and some suggestions for handling elopement for children on the spectrum.

I was standing on my porch taking down our very dead hanging baskets, flowers laying crunchy and brown from the summer heat. Suddenly I notice a man sprinting towards the fence across the street and almost into the woods. I watched with curiosity looking to see if he was chasing a dog or animal. And then I saw him, a child, maybe 10 years old, at the fence. The man hit him in the head with an open hand, grabbed him by the collar pulling him forward while saying, “I’m going to hurt you.” He finished his assault by striking the child in the chest with an iPad. Shocked I walked into my front yard.

I stood there, waiting as they ascended the hill.  Could this be his father? What did I just see? Where are they going? As they approached, I asked if everything was, okay? To make a long story short the adult was the child’s Behavioral Health Technician. He indicated that the parents did know he was striking the child. I ended up following the pair to the child’s home where the father was waiting in the doorway. He was very aware of the “technique” to corral his “very autistic” child and basically told me to take a hike. I called the police, made a report, and then reported to Child Protective Services the next day.

Let me tell you, I was scared. I was scared for the child, then scared to follow them home and challenge the aggressor. My fear was paralyzing as I approached the father, and I am still fearful of retaliation because I took action. But I am here to tell you that turning a blind eye would have been the wrong thing to do. Especially to a child that had little to no verbal ability.

I see incredible people in my practice that fall on the spectrum. I see parents trying hard.  While I recognize that not all people have the means or drive to be able to be a fearless advocate, even for their kids, I am also here to tell you that there are appropriate and inappropriate techniques for behavior modification and assault is not one of them. Furthermore, “it is estimated that children with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be physically or sexually abused as their typically-abled peers” (source: Autism Speaks).

What would you do if you witnessed such a scenario? Are there proper techniques for handling elopement for children on the spectrum?  I really didn’t know what the right answer was so I did some research:

  • According to the Marcus Autism Center, “It’s common for children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD)to run or wander away from caregivers or secure locations. This is elopement. Elopement is common in children with autism and can be a traumatic situation for a child and caregivers. Understanding why your child elopes and how to prevent it may help decrease stress and prevent accidental injuries.”
  • I Love ABA suggests: “Practice appropriate behaviors for being outside and staying near an adult using praise and reinforcement.” Their whole article is worth reading, and what a great blog.

I cannot imagine the fear of having a child elope and had no idea of the proper way of handling elopement for children on the spectrum. But I do know this.  Striking a child and threatening to “hurt” them is not the answer. If you are paying a professional to work with your child to modify behavior or to develop skills outside of your home, expect better.

1 thought on “Handling Elopement for Children on The Spectrum

  1. This is such an important message. The resources you cited are excellent. Thank you.

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