Elopement and Neighborhood Safety

As the end of the school year approaches and students are let out on vacation, it’s important for us to consider the risks of elopement and overall neighborhood safety for children with autism. This month, we’re sharing a special feature from ASAT written by Kate Britton, EdD, BCBA and Bridget Taylor, PsyD, BCBA from Alpine Learning Group in New Jersey. Here, Kate and Bridget offer their guidelines on preventing potentially harmful situations and ensuring the safety of your children. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

Elopement and Neighborhood Safety
Bridget Taylor, PsyD, BCBA and Kate Britton, EdD, BCBA
Alpine Learning Group, NJ

Elopement and neighborhood safety

Photo credit: AWAARE

You are not alone. In fact, according to an online survey conducted by the National Autism Association in 2007, 92% of the parents indicated their child with autism was at risk of wandering away from his or her home or care provider. More recently, Kiely et. al. (2016) reported survey results of families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders which found that 49% of those children had made an attempt to elope since the age of four. Additionally, 62% of parents of children who elope reported that this behavior prevents them from participating in activities away from home. Children with autism are especially vulnerable if they wander away from caregivers, as they may not be able to communicate that they are lost, take steps to ensure their safety such as identifying who in the community is safe vs. unsafe, asking for assistance, or stating important information such as their phone number. We hope the following guidelines can help you in preventing potentially harmful situations.

Develop a “safety / reaction plan”. Develop a family safety plan and practice that plan. In the event of your child wandering, time is most important and a quick, efficient response can make a difference. For example:

  • Which family member will call the local police?
  • Which family member(s) will go out looking and where (e.g., the route to the child’s favorite park)?
  • Which family member will call neighbors of homes with pools?
  • Which family member will stay by the phone in case the child is found and returned home or to receive updates?

You can find a sample plan at the Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration website (www.awaare.com). It would also be important for your child’s school or treatment center to implement an emergency plan for elopement.

Secure your home and yard. Secure your home and yard area so that your child is less likely to wander away. Sometimes standard locks are not enough as many children quickly learn how to operate standard locks on doors, windows and gates. Install locks on doors and gates in the yard that your child cannot open (consider location height and lock complexity). In addition, if your home has an alarm system, keep it set to go off whenever a door or window has been opened. If your home does not have an alarm, install an alarm system that signals when a door or window is opened. There are a variety of systems available, including high-tech and low-tech options. You may consider contacting a medical or educational provider, who can help identify resources to help obtain funding for such systems/equipment. Here are some suggested websites:

Install monitoring systems. Additionally, be sure to regularly monitor your child around the house by using a video monitoring system or a baby monitor that has video monitoring capability, such as:

Make the yard and pool area safe! If you have a pool or there is a pool nearby, ensure there is a locked fence surrounding the pool. You can also purchase a pool alarm for yours and/or your neighbors’ pools (e.g., www.poolguard.com). If your child goes into pools unsupervised, you can also use the Safety Turtle (www.safetyturtle.com), which is a wristband that locks securely around your child’s wrist and sounds an alarm if it becomes immersed in water.

Inform law enforcement. It is also critical to inform your police and fire departments that an individual with autism resides in your home. You can do this by calling your local non-emergency telephone number and asking personnel to note in the 911 database that someone with autism lives at your address. If there is ever an emergency, the emergency responders will know in advance that they need to respond accordingly. We also recommend giving local police and fire departments a picture of your child with your contact information on the back which can be helpful in identifying your child if s/he is ever brought to the station by someone else. Another suggestion would be to register with the National Child Identification Program (www.childidprogram.com). The program provides a kit that includes information on everything law enforcement would need in case of an emergency.

Educate neighbors. Another tip is to make sure your trusted neighbors are aware of your situation. Give them a picture along with some helpful information about your child (e.g., s/he is unable to speak, s/he responds to simple commands, s/he likes to swim so please keep your pool gate locked) and about autism in general. Also include your cell phone and home phone numbers, and ask them to call immediately in the event they ever see your child wandering away from the house or walking the street unaccompanied by an adult. Also, assess your child’s current level of communication. For example, can s/he answer social questions and be understood by novel listeners? Strangers will be most likely to ask your child, “What’s your name?” So it is important that your child can be understood by listeners who don’t know your child. If your child will not be understood or can’t relay enough information, you could use medical identification jewelry, such as a bracelet (e.g., www.medicalert.org).

Safety on vacations. Once your home is secure, vacations may still seem unrealistic. However, there are some steps you can take to allow your family to safely stay in a hotel or space other than the safe haven you have created. When planning for a vacation, really think about your vacation destination and determine the potential risks for your child with autism. Specifically, if your child has a history of wandering (especially towards pools or other swimming areas) you may want to ask for a room furthest from the pool area or without an ocean view-or maybe even choose a location that does not have a pool. When checking into the location, inform the hotel staff about your child and advise them that s/he will require supervision at all times and if they see him/her unsupervised to call you immediately. Also, consider using portable door alarms for hotel rooms, a child-locator systems and/or a global positioning systems (GPS). You can find low-tech tracking devices and high-tech devices online.

Teach skills to increase safety. Lastly, it’s essential to proactively teach your child skills that will increase his/her safety. Work with your child’s school or treatment program to include the important safety goals in your child’s individualized education plan (IEP) such as:

  • responding to “stop”
  • answering questions to provide information
  • responding to name
  • holding hands
  • requesting permission to leave the house
  • requesting preferred items/activities
  • waiting appropriately
  • using a cell phone
  • crossing the street safely (if appropriate given age and level of functioning)
  • seeking assistance when lost
  • cooperating with wearing identification jewelry
  • identifying outdoor boundaries (i.e., not leaving the front lawn)
  • learning clear rules about outdoor play (getting a parent if a stranger approaches, asking for help if ball goes into street)
  • swimming more proficiently
  • learning rules about pool use

Check out www.awaare.org for sample letters to submit to your case manager and attach to your child’s IEP. Finally, it cannot be overstated that children with autism require very close supervision when in harm’s way. We hope you find these proactive and teaching suggestions helpful in minimizing your child’s risk.

Additional toolkits and resources

References

Anderson, C., Law, J.K., Daniels, A., Rice, C., Mandell, D. Hagopian, L. & Law, P. (2012). Occurrence and family impact of elopement in children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 130(5), 870-877.

Kiely, B., Migdal, T. R., Vettam, S., Adesman, A. (2016). Prevalence and correlates of elopement in a nationally representative sample of children with developmental disabilities in the United States. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0148337, doi:101371/journal. Pone.0148337

About the Authors

Dr. Bridget A. Taylor, PsyD, BCBA is Co-founder and Executive Director of Alpine Learning Group and is Senior Clinical Advisor for Rethink. Dr. Taylor has specialized in the education and treatment of children with autism for the past twenty-five years. She holds a Doctorate of Psychology from Rutgers University, and received her Master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education from Columbia University. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and a Licensed Psychologist. She is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and serves on the editorial board of Behavioral Interventions. She is a member of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board and serves on the Autism Advisory Group for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. Dr. Taylor also serves on the Scientific and Community Advisory Board for SPARK a new program at the Simon’s Foundation Autism Research Initiative. Dr. Taylor is active in the autism research community and has published numerous articles and book chapters on effective interventions for autism. She is a national and international presenter and serves in an advisory capacity for autism education and treatment programs both locally and abroad. She has been influential in the development of autism treatment centers both locally and in Italy, India, Canada, France, Australia and Kosovo. Dr. Taylor’s current research interests are in identifying innovative procedures to increase the observational learning repertoires of children with autism.

Kate E. Cerino Britton, EdD, BCBA is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and a certified teacher of the handicapped, and has worked with individuals with autism since 1997. She is currently the Principal of the education program at Alpine Learning Group. She holds a Masters in Education Administration from Caldwell College and Special Education from Long Island University and a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership, Management, and Policy from Seton Hall University. She serves on the New Jersey Association for Behavior Analysis Board of Directors as the Secretary and Continuing Education Chair and has presented at national and international conferences on increasing socializing, problem solving, small groups and dyad instruction, promoting safety, and augmentative communication.

5 Tips on Teaching Safety Skills to Children with Autism

This week, we’re thrilled to bring you a second guest article by Sarah Kupferschmidt, MA, BCBA. Sarah has written a very comprehensive article on teaching street safety skills in children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Learning to navigate the real world involves many complex skills that we may often take for granted. So how do we teach our children when to cross the street and what to watch out for? Read on for Sarah’s tips on how to teach and reinforce safety skills in children.


I am passionate about empowering children with special needs and their families with skills and knowledge that they can use to improve their quality of life. This is why I am super excited to be sharing tips and strategies that relate to keeping your child with autism safe on the street. Learning to navigate the real world involves a lot of complex skills that we sometimes take for granted. For example, learning to determine when it is safe to cross the street requires the ability to attend to your environment, the ability to identify moving cars from cars that are still, the ability to identify the signal at the cross walk that lets you know it is safe to cross, among many, many, more. In some cases even more advanced problem solving is required because if the sign says it is safe to cross and a motorist continues through the intersection we need to be able to identify the moving car is approaching and that we need to wait for it to pass before crossing the street. So where do we begin?

Tip #1: The Learner is Never Wrong

I love the saying “the learner is never wrong” because of what it implies. Whenever considering teaching a new skill to a child or student we need to focus on that unique child’s strengths and weaknesses. Where do we need to boost up their skills and what do they already know so that we can capitalize on those strengths. Before going out to teach your child with autism how to cross the street safely, they should have some imitation skills, be able to respond to instructions and attend to you or a teacher amidst a lot of distractions (e.g., cars, background noise and pedestrians, just to name a few). Once you have determined they are ready to learn this important skill you would want to use things that are of interest to them and that you know align with their learning style. For example, are they a visual learner and if so, how can you incorporate visuals to maximize their learning potential in how you go out and practice crossing the street safely?

Tip #2: Simplify the Complex Skills

As mentioned earlier in the post, many of the skills that we use actually have many components, something we take for granted. In this case, teaching how to cross the street might involve the following steps:

  1. Stop at the curb/crosswalk
  2. Look at the crosswalk signal
  3. Decide if it is safe to cross (e.g., does it say ‘walk,’ or does it say ‘stop’)
  4. If the sign says walk, then look both ways
  5. Decide if it is safe (e.g., is there a car moving or not)
  6. Walk safely across the street (e.g., this means walking not running, perhaps holding your hand)

It is important to remember that these steps are just an example of what you might teach. You would individualize this based on the environment in which you live (e.g., if there is a crosswalk sign or crossing guard, or not) and the expectations you have as a family (e.g., to hold the hand or not). Teach this using tools that you know are effective with your unique child. For example, you may decide to print out a visual depiction for each of the steps and show them as you talk about it and practice. This depends on your child’s unique learning style. As with every skill that that we teach, it is never enough to just tell someone or show someone how to do it. We need to actually go out and practice.

Tip #3: Practice, Practice, Practice

Use every opportunity that you have to go out and practice this very important skill. I would also recommend that you set up specific times to go out and practice. You can use the visuals that you printed and go through each of the steps while you are out. If you notice that your child is struggling on a particular step, then practice that particular step at home even more. For example, if your child is not identifying the walk signal when you are out on the street, set up times to go over that at home.

Tip #4: Monitor Progress

In order to see how your child is doing on each of the steps it is a good idea to record how they do on each of the steps. You might print off a checklist with each of the steps that looks something like this:

Street Safety Chart

You would calculate the number of times you recorded a Y over the total number of steps (e.g., in this case 6). For example, if I worked on this with my child and he did all of the steps he would get a 6/6. If he missed a step his overall score would be 5/6 or 83%. This score can then be used to monitor progress. I would also suggest that anytime you go out and practice you highlight whichever step(s) that they missed, if any. This will allow you to see if you need to work on something a little bit more before you go out and practice.

Tip #5: Notice the Good Stuff

Feedback is critical when you are teaching a new skill. Otherwise how is your child going to know how they are doing? This means that when they get it right we need to notice it and we need to be specific about what it is they did well. You can even use the visuals if you have them. You might say something like “I love the way you followed all of the steps of what to do when crossing the street safely! You stopped at the curb, looked at the signal…etc.” You may point to the visual as you tell them. If they missed a step remind them that next time they should try to remember what it is that they missed. Anytime they do one of the steps spontaneously, point it out to them and give lots of praise. Over time we can fade the praise out but it is really important when teaching a new skill, especially at the beginning.

If you have any questions about any of the tips listed here feel free to contact me or a local Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). I am passionate about keeping our kids safe! Sign up for my newsletter or follow me on Twitter for regular tips and strategies!

WRITTEN BY SARAH KUPFERSCHMIDT, MA, BCBA

Sarah Kupferschmidt is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who has worked with hundreds of children with autism and their families across Ontario. She has had the privilege of supervising ABA programs and training clinical staff in those programs.  Currently Sarah offers parent coaching and workshops to teach parents but also educators on the most effective ways to teach children using the principles of ABA.  She is also a part-time faculty member at Mohawk College in the Autism Behavioral Science program, in the social sciences program at McMaster University, and an Adjunct Professor at Sage Graduate School.  Sarah is CEO and co-Founder of Special Appucations, Incwhich is a company that creates educational products that help maximize the learning potential for children with autism because they are designed using the principles of ABA.  Sarah has appeared as a guest on CP24, CHCH news, Hamilton Life and the Scott Thompson radio show as an authority on autism.