The Terrifying Truth of Elopement

4:39 am this morning. I was in bed with Boba (of course) and happened to wake up to the sound of little feet in the living room, pitter pattering back and forth. I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “Great; another ridiculously early morning when Wickett is jacked up and all over the place.” So I rolled out of bed and went out to find him.

And my heart stopped.

Wickett was standing at the door that goes from the kitchen to the garage, hand on the doorknob. He was wearing a jacket and his shoes. At first I was confused; we deadbolt the door and have the key on one of those stretchy key fob things up out of his reach. And then I saw the stool. That’s what the “pitter patter” of little feet had been–he went into the bathroom and got the stool that Boba uses to brush his teeth, brought it back into the kitchen, stood up on it and managed to reach the key, pull it down, and unlock the deadbolt.

I tried to remain calm and just asked him what he was doing. He looked a bit guilty (knew that he wasn’t supposed to do what he was doing) and replied, “Nothing.” “Buddy, you have on your jacket and shoes and you worked hard to unlock the door. What were you going to do?” “I just wanted to play outside.” That was probably true.

BUT. But. But. What if. What if. What if.

What if I hadn’t have woken up? He knows how to open the garage door and would/could have. He wanted to go outside, and despite having a deadbolt and the key “out of reach”, he was making it happen. Elopement.

For those who are not familiar with the term, elopement (when related to people with autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc.) is when someone wanders away from a safe environment. Here are some terrifying statistics on elopement for kids with autism:

“According to data released in April 2011 by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) through the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI):

  • Roughly half, or 49%, of children with a autism attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings
  • More than one third of children with autism who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
  • Two in three parents of elopers reported their missing children had a “close call” with a traffic injury
  • 32% of parents reported a “close call” with a possible drowning
  • Children with ASD are eight times more likely to elope between the ages of 7 and 10 than their typically-developing siblings
  • Half of families with elopers report they had never received advice or guidance about elopement from a professional

In 2012, the National Autism Association found that from 2009 to 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism subsequent to wandering, and that 23% of total wandering-related deaths occurred while the child was in the care of someone other than a parent. (http://www.awaare.org/)”

In general, Wickett does not tend to be an eloper. But the terrifying thing is, he could be. He proved that. I do believe that he just wanted to go outside and play. BUT. He easily could have gotten distracted, entranced by his newfound “freedom” (outside with no one to tell him what to do!), etc. and wandered off. He has bolted from us in public places before. He is getting bigger and faster and stronger and could easily slip away. Wickett is a very smart kid…but he’s also just 5 and has some major dysfunction when it comes to executive functioning (another post for another time), impulsiveness, and decision-making. More than the average 5 yo boy.

In the moment early this morning, I managed to keep my cool. I got down on Wickett’s level, made him “listen with his eyes” (tends to help him make better eye contact), and explained that it was very very dangerous, blah blah blah, very important that he tell us, blah blah blah, etc. Wickett is a smart kid and I know he understood logically what I was saying. But in the moment where freedom is wafting in from the driveway, where he could just get on his bike or scooter and take off into the damp night air, who’s to say what might happen?

But later, after I dropped the kids off at preschool, after I returned home and crawled back into bed feeling sick and horrified, the “what ifs” swirling around in my head making me dizzy, the panic truly set in. I tried to go back to sleep (because I desperately needed to), but the panic…the panic making me short of breath and unable to stop the images that were firing away in my brain.

Needless to say, I’ll spend much of today figuring out what *else* we need to be doing to turn our home into Fort Knox to try and keep him safe. Goody–there are $300 shoes we can buy. :/

Here are some links to websites and articles if you’re interested in learning more about elopement:

http://www.awaare.org/

http://www.iancommunity.org/cs/ian_research_reports/ian_research_report_elopement

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23045563

https://www.smart911.com/blog-article.php?p=5694

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3 thoughts on “The Terrifying Truth of Elopement

  1. Wow! Scary beyond belief. Are you in touch with others with similar issues who may have some solutions that have worked for them?

  2. Lisa, several years ago, before we had children, Marlin and I were out on a Sunday afternoon and found a boy, who I’d guess was between 6 and 8. We were in an upscale neighborhood called Larchmont Village, which is always busy Sundays because of their farmers market. The boy was non-verbal but was willing to stay with us. I was pretty unfamiliar with autism and I really did not understand his behavior. We were a block south of the main drag of the neighborhood, and we did not know what to do. It was baking hot in the sun but I didn’t want to take him far from where we’d first seen him because I assumed his guardian must be somewhere close. We called the police several times. We sat with him for an hour on the sidewalk. Finally, right when the police arrived, the boy’s nanny arrived and (in broken English) eventually conveyed that he was autistic. Then the mom got there, took him, and never even thanked us — she just seemed annoyed. But reading this blog I have a better perspective and maybe she was just too freaked out to behave as I would expect a mom to in that situation. So thank you for shedding a lot of light on this for me.

    • Betsy, first of all, THANK YOU. On behalf of the mother who wasn’t able to for whatever reason. Thank you. For recognizing that he needed help. For sitting with him for an hour, taking time out of your day to help a stranger. It is distressing that it took the police that long to respond, and I do understand your confusion at the mother’s behavior. Who’s to say–perhaps she *was* just being rude; but, like you said, perhaps she was exhausted from this happening over and over, or from not sleeping, or from any number of things. But THANK YOU. Who knows what might have happened to that boy if you and Marlin hadn’t taken the time to see to his safety. xoxo

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