Understanding elopement in those with autism

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About half of those diagnosed with autism are prone to wandering off.

Specialists call it elopement, and in recent months we’ve reported on local searches for missing autistic children.

Pam Wells of Kinsman is the grandmother to autistic and non-verbal 7-year-old J.J.

“J.J.’s a joy, he’s a blessing,” Wells said. “He’s a great speller, he types it out on the iPad, he does sign language. He’s great at finding a way to communicate even though he is non-verbal.”

But J.J. is slowly starting to speak.

Research shows the main reason that those on the autism spectrum wander away is because they can’t communicate what it is they really want to do.

Although it’s not an uncommon problem, it’s one that Pam Wells doesn’t usually have to deal with.

“We’ve been fortunate that if he does start to run, he will stop if you call him or tell him to stop, but that is a big fear,” she said.

It’s a real issue that’s becoming more problematic nationwide, and one that’s not taken lightly at The Rich Center for Autism in Youngstown.

“We have a two to one student ratio so the children are usually very well-attended by an adult and if they do get away in the hallways, usually there’s someone always at the end of the hallway,” said classroom supervisor Brendan Considine.

There’s also locks on all the outside doors and safety knobs inside all the classrooms.

But it’s arguably most important at home where they might be able to slip away undetected.

“Our house is like a secure fort, I mean locks on the door where he can’t reach, closet doors, every single door you can think of to keep him in,” Wells explained.

Kids with autism may or may not grow out of it.

“It depends on what motivates the person to elope, it’s the really the reason why they’re going where they’re going,” Considine added.

And even though J.J. isn’t a wanderer, his family still doesn’t take any chances.

“You just try to stay ahead of them, you try to see things from their perspective or from their eye level,” said Wells. “Everything you can so that maybe you don’t have to face that.”

There’s a lot of tips out there on how to protect those on the autism spectrum. One of the most widely used tools is a tracking device or ID bracelet for those that may wander off.

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