Autism, Elopement, and Policing
These blogs contain opinions and lived experiences of the individual author, not necessarily those of AutismBC. We honour the opinions and lived experiences of the individual author and we try our best to vet all the resources contained within our website; however, we can’t control any images or language that are included in any third party links or resources that may be shared. Cay Burton (she/her) is an activist and caregiver for a young person with an ASD diagnosis. She is currently completing her Masters in Early Childhood Education at the University of British Columbia. We’d like to thank Cay for sharing her story with us.
Autism, Elopement, and Policing: Building “Communities of Care” for Youth on the Spectrum by Cay Burton
This blog post has taken me a while to write because elopement, for me, is emotionally charged. I’ve had the last few months to write, but these same months have been filled with so many elopements that the edges of the subject feel sharp to touch.
Elopement, wandering, fleeing, and bolting are all synonyms for a type of escapist behaviour exhibited by many, but not all, young people on the autism spectrum. Depending on the child, curiosity or intrigue can be the impetus for an elopement; for others, these incidents stem from intense feelings of avoidance or panic. Whatever the individual motivation – and whichever word you and the Autistic youth in your life prefer to use – elopement is always an emergency when it happens.
In these types of emergencies, the police are usually called, making things needlessly traumatic for the child who eloped, as well as for caregivers. I believe that elopements would be better addressed through community-based approaches – where even bystanders extend quick-thinking and fast-acting care towards Autistic young people – rather than police involvement. Avoiding the police during elopement is especially important for Autistic youth who experience double marginalization as a result of the systemic racism and ableism woven into Canadian law enforcement practices.
I write this post as a long-term caregiver for a young person diagnosed with a profound Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Turning sixteen this summer, he continues to have high support needs, requiring constant supervision and care in order to stay safe both at home and in the wider community. He is a friendly, adventurous and active teen who also experiences a lot of anxiety during big life changes (which is pretty much the entirety of teenagehood). This anxiety sometimes manifests as impulses to elope from familiar environments, like home or school.
“I believe that elopements would be better addressed through community-based approaches – where even bystanders extend quick-thinking and fast-acting care towards Autistic young people – rather than police involvement.”
Lately, these elopements have been happening with greater frequency. He’s been running away and then successfully taking either a bus or train without any money. One time, he managed to travel 15 kilometres from school before being found by the police. Then, either his parents or I coordinate with the officers where we can pick him up.
I recognize that, in our current social context, there are limited options for intervention that bystanders, educators, parents and caregivers of Autistic young people can rely on during these emergency situations. That being said, any automatic habits we might have around calling the police need to be questioned when addressing elopement behaviours. Instead, we should use elopement incidents to think about what it means to truly show up as community members and role models for each other. Why are we policing and even criminalizing ASD when extending care to youth who are lost or in distress would be much more effective?
This blog post is about the material consequences of elopement in a society that still doesn’t understand ASD and, as a result, stigmatizes and fails to accommodate neurodivergent individuals. First, I’ll explain what elopement is and how diverse these behaviours can be. Then, I’ll discuss how elopement almost always causes lowkey trauma for caregivers and children, especially when police are involved. Finally, I’ll outline some solutions for navigating and supporting elopement behaviours in order to increase overall community safety for Autistic youth.
What is an elopement?
Elopement is when an autistic person either wanders or runs from a usually safe and familiar place and, in the process, becomes lost or at least loses track of their caregivers and family members. Some Autistic youth elope to be chased by their caregivers or avoid social situations and large crowds. Elopement takes many forms because autism diagnoses are so individual and specific; there’s no consistent explanation for when or why an Autistic teenager might elope from home, school, their grandparents’ house, or their favourite neighbourhood park.
For some youth, elopement is a matter of being curious about something and wandering towards whatever is capturing their interest. For others, like the boy I nanny, elopement is more of a panicked or avoidant response, which means that his running away is often the behaviour that results from being overstimulated or dysregulated. But elopement is always a safety risk, both for those who are supervising the young person who just eloped and for the Autistic youth themselves.
“Elopement takes many forms because autism diagnoses are so individual and specific; there’s no consistent explanation for when or why an Autistic teenager might elope…”
Preventing elopement is not as simple as just watching a young person more closely. Teenagers on the spectrum deserve increased autonomy than they had during childhood, just like neurotypical youth. Teens are stronger and taller than their caregivers, so Autistic youth who elope can often outrun their teachers, parents, siblings, nannies, and support staff fairly easily if they decide to bolt. Safety hazards are equally numerous for small children who can get easily injured, fall into narrow spaces, or drown in shallow water. It is unfair to assume that increased supervision will mitigate a young person’s impulse to elope. What increased supervision can do, however, is buy caregivers and educators more reaction time – an invaluable resource in emergency situations!
While it’s true that caregivers can learn the signs and patterns of elopement when it happens repeatedly (and I want to reiterate that this knowledge is borne out of multiple, traumatizing, non-ideal situations), sometimes elopement is completely impulsive and there’s no obvious trigger that can be preemptively identified. For non-speaking youth, or those with limited communication skills, getting an explanation after the fact – for why, when and where they eloped – can also be challenging or impossible, especially if the incident happened in a state of heightened emotion. For Autistic children and their families, the unpredictability of elopements is one of the biggest difficulties tied to this behaviour, with police presence representing an additional hurdle to ensuring overall safety.
Elopement trauma for children and caregivers
Elopement is a type of fight-or-flight behaviour that causes a huge amount of stress and can be all types of traumatizing for both the Autistic person who elopes and the people who love and care about them. According to an American study conducted in 2012, 56% of caregivers agreed that elopement was the biggest stressor they experienced in caring for an Autistic youth. Police presence makes things much more intense, taking these incidents from the purview of behaviour intervention to a near step away from criminalization and violence.
Whenever I discover the boy I nanny has eloped, the bottom of my stomach drops and the problem-solving part of my brain kicks into overdrive. It’s an automatic response to knowing that every second that passes is another moment that could potentially place him in danger (he was once found running in and out of traffic on a busy street in Vancouver). At times, I’ve been surprised, angry and even impatient that the urgency I feel in these situations is not always similarly expressed by others. I wonder if it’s because everyone responds differently to emergency situations, with some people freezing in their roles as bystanders. But I’ve also noticed that, due to the frequency of his elopements, a somewhat blasé attitude is beginning to emerge even from other people who work with and know him quite well – as though constant emergencies in his weekly routine are just a part of him being autistic.
“Elopement is a type of fight-or-flight behaviour that causes a huge amount of stress and can be all types of traumatizing for both the Autistic person who elopes and the people who love and care about them.”
We should not be taking traumatic experiences for granted as part of an autism diagnosis. A crisis is a crisis no matter how often it happens. A recurring emergency is not somehow less serious because of its repetition. In fact, I feel that the severity of elopement behaviour compounds with each incident, placing youth who elope in closer proximity to danger each time they are suddenly MIA. It does Autistic young people a great disservice if the adults in their lives become desensitized to the sense of emergency that elopements ought to elicit.
Image credit: Global News. Missing Teen with Autism Found Safe
Our current systems in so-called BC are not set up to ensure the safety and accessible movement of youth on the spectrum. Being in the back of a police car multiple times a week – for being Autistic – is not normal nor safe. Seeing the teen I care for in the back of a police vehicle, knees pressed to his chest and shoeless toes against the partition, I know I’m “supposed to” express gratitude to the officers who had the decency to offer him a granola bar. Instead, I feel that appeasing these officers — saying what I need to say to avoid escalation — is one more barrier to face before he is truly safe again.
“Our society is set up so that the police are called when elopements occur. Depending on the officer who apprehends the eloping youth, they may or may not know how to recognize or respond to Autistic behaviours.”
The danger of the police during elopements
Elopements are already scary because of the sudden separation between a child and caregiver. This scariness is amplified when the police are called to apprehend an Autistic youth who has eloped.
The risk inherent in elopements is often why people call the police. Coupled with the fact that there are virtually no other supports available to contact in these types of emergencies, police end up being called to situations that could very likely be handled with more care, and fewer weapons than if community members responded instead.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been bringing awareness to police brutality against young people since its inception in 2013, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by an armed police officer, George Zimmerman. Unfortunately, young Black men with disabilities – Elijah McClain, Troy Canales, Matthew Rushin and Osime Brown, among others – cannot rely on the police to protect or keep them safe. Indigenous young autistic men, such as Joshua Nixon, are more likely than their white peers to encounter hostility from police as well. Both I and the boy I nanny are white. I know that our racial identities have played a significant mitigating factor against potential police violence in these situations – so far.
Our society is set up so that the police are called when elopements occur. Depending on the officer who apprehends the eloping youth, they may or may not know how to recognize or respond to Autistic behaviours. I once had an officer ask me what was “wrong” with my nanny kid, implying that he was dangerous or on drugs, instead of being Autistic. While more comprehensive ASDs training for police officers is certainly needed, it is not the only answer to the complex problem of policing elopement. For example, in terms of first responders, it would make way more sense to have an ambulance or the paramedics sent to the location of an eloped teenager in distress – so that their wellbeing could be medically supported – than to have police wearing bulletproof vests and guns show up on the scene.
During my most recent police interaction, the officer wouldn’t let the teen I nanny out of the back of his police car until all my information had been taken down. Then, I was given a bunch of unsolicited advice on how to avoid the situation “next time.” After that, I had to reassure the officer more than once that my nanny kid wouldn’t bolt from me when he was transferred from vehicle to vehicle. The officer wanted me to use child-proof locks in my own car to somehow prevent my nanny kid from running again. I tried to explain, more than once, that he has never run from me, since I am a safe person (and not holding him hostage in a partitioned police vehicle). Besides, he can just undo the child-proof locks from the inside of the car! He’s a teenager on the autism spectrum, not an alien!
In these moments, I am reminded that most of the authority figures in my nanny kid’s life still do not know enough about autism to be able to provide adequate support during emergencies. So, why are those who wear weapons the ones called (as a default) to elopements, when their presence is only a roll-of-the-dice away from causing irrevocable harm?
Lack of options for caregivers
There is a gaping hole in accessible social support for individuals on the autism spectrum, as well as their families and caregivers, who are in crisis. This is the reason why the police are often called to “handle” elopements. This default option for managing elopements needs to change. A systemic overhaul is required in order to place the well-being of Autistic youth at the centre of social structures – like education, family services, transportation, and the law – while avoiding the intervention of weaponized and entirely untrained and unqualified police officers.
I am a big proponent of systemic change when it comes to the issue of policing autistic youth. Much of the large-scale change that I believe needs to happen in order for Autistic young people to be safe in our communities can be accomplished through an intentional expression of care from bystanders during crisis moments. Even though our societal scaffolding is flawed and inadequately responsive to the needs of young autistic people and their families, we can still show care for each other without relying on police intervention. Folks who witness elopements in progress need to understand the crucial role and special responsibility they possess in taking a moment to extend genuine care towards a young person who is eloping.
“Folks who witness elopements in progress need to understand the crucial role and special responsibility they possess in taking a moment to extend genuine care towards a young person who is eloping.”
It is this type of community-based care that has the potential to save lives in the short term, while long term solutions that address both racism and ableism in the institution of policing continue to be confronted. For now, Band-Aid solutions might be the most accessible, but Band-Aids, applied with care, can make a big difference sometimes.
One Band-Aid solution that caregivers and Autistic youth can use to manage elopement behaviours is the creation of a personal safety plan, which I describe below.
Making an elopement safety plan
There are two major difficulties in making safety plans for elopements. One of the key challenges for implementing a consistent safety plan for wandering or bolting is the unpredictability of these behaviours. The second challenge is much more systemic and has to do with the fact that there is currently no other option for intervention in elopement emergencies than calling 9-1-1 or the Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD). The former is much more individual and can be tailored to each youth’s ASD, while the latter requires those in the Autism community and beyond to reorganize social supports so that—as I wrote in The Georgia Straight—a middle organization exists that can respond directly to crises within this community, like elopement.
The uncertainty of elopement is intensified if these behaviours are newly emergent during the teen years or if triggers have yet to be identified or seem to be random. Yet safety plans are very important because they give everyone involved a grounding point to refer to during elopement situations. Additionally, it is important that safety plans are tailored to the individual child’s needs and elopement behaviours in order to be effective. Otherwise, these “plans” end up being yet another piece of unhelpful protocol that obscures the time-sensitivity of elopement situations, instead of facilitating reunification between children and caregivers.
“Where possible, safety plans that include the voice of the Autistic child – and are both proactive (preventing elopement) and reactive (responding in real-time to an elopement when it happens) – are ideal…”
The boy I nanny most often elopes to the neighbourhood where he grew up, but he’s also gone to hospitals, hotels, as well as different train stations. When he elopes from school, it’s usually after lunchtime, but he’s also made it through the whole school day before eloping when the school bus shows up. All of the myriad and situational variables that influence elopement behaviour means that making a safety plan is one of the best tools for managing these emergencies.
Image Credit: The Mighty. Free Autism Safety Kits.
Where possible, safety plans that include the voice of the Autistic child – and are both proactive (preventing elopement) and reactive (responding in real-time to an elopement when it happens) – are ideal for a number of reasons. A safety plan that features the perspective of the individual who elopes is likely to empower them by teaching them the difference between safety and danger, as well as providing them with the knowledge for how the adults in their lives are likely to try to prevent them from escaping in the first place. For the child, understanding that prevention strategies used by adults (chasing, restraining, removing from the room) are not because they’re in trouble or being punished but, rather, come from a place of ensuring their protection and showing care, can de-escalate elopements, for some. Allowing the child to identify, for themselves, locations where they tend to elope; collaboratively determining a “meeting place;” and deciding what they should do, or who they should call, once they get there, can also help provide a point of reference for children and caregivers during elopements.
“A safety plan that features the perspective of the individual who elopes is likely to empower them by teaching them the difference between safety and danger…”
Some safety plans actively involve local police by introducing Autistic children to officers at the local police department. Others suggest registering youth on the spectrum with the police department so that their file number can quickly be called up during elopements. Neither of these options challenges the structural risks involved in policing autism, but they may help de-escalate violence and aggression during elopements nonetheless, depending on the child. I’d like to caution that, if this is the approach being taken, it is a small component of the overall safety plan and not the pivot point around which the entire plan is oriented. Often, due to school policies, 9-1-1 is called when a student elopes from school grounds. This is another structural barrier that caregivers and Autistic young people may have to navigate in creating their safety plans. Having conversations with youth on the spectrum about how to interact with police (something many families of colour already do regardless of whether their children are neurotypical or neurodivergent) is also a necessary part of effective safety plans.
Depending on sensory needs, young people on the spectrum can be encouraged to wear some kind of GPS bracelet or have a tracking device on their phone to help with relocation. Not all Autistic youth have cell phones, but devices can be very useful tools for keeping young people safe and in touch with their caregivers during elopement situations. Some Autistic youth – particularly those with communication challenges – carry a small piece of paper with their name and caregiver’s contact information on it in case of emergencies; however, objects aren’t always useful in elopement situations unless the child is already wearing them, or else takes these things with them, when they elope. Putting bells or chimes on doors can help alert caregivers when youth leave a space unexpectedly.
In situations where safety plans either rely too heavily on police intervention or else fall apart due to unforeseen circumstances, bystander intervention can promote greater safety for Autistic youth in the community, too.
To the bystander: Ways to show care during an elopement
If you witness a potential elopement in progress, be aware that you are likely this youth’s best chance at a peaceful outcome (before the situation is escalated to police involvement and therefore a higher potential for trauma and violence). Look for signs that clearly denote a teenager in crisis. Without defaulting to stereotypes, some questions you can ask yourself to determine whether or not intervening would be more of a help than a hindrance include:
- Clothing: Is this young person wearing appropriate clothing for the weather? The boy I nanny will elope without shoes or a jacket, even during the winter. Are they wearing a medical alert bracelet?
- Stimming: Are they stimming (self-soothing and repetitive verbal and physical expressions) a lot or loudly? Are they exhibiting seemingly confrontational behaviour? A scared teen – who has just eloped and is realizing they are far away from the safe place they should actually be – may try to get your attention by yelling at you (volume control can be a challenge for some kids on the spectrum, especially when emotions are elevated).
- Communicating: Tears streaming down a young person’s face merits attention. Relatedly, have they picked you out of the crowd to suddenly divulge a bunch of personal information? They might have been taught to tell an adult their name and phone number when they’re lost. Lucky you – you must seem like a safe person!
- Physicality: Are they moving around the space a lot (pacing, running, jumping or bouncing in their seat), especially in ways that aren’t socially-expected within such an environment? If not prompted to sit down and have quiet hands, my nanny kid will “dance” near the front of the train without holding onto any handles. Conversely, some children may try to make themselves very small and huddle up in a corner.
- Not paying: Did you see them take something from a store, or board a bus or train, without paying? They likely don’t have any money with them because they left their caregiver or backpack behind when they eloped.
These are not universal signs of distress, but if you notice a young person exhibiting any of the above signs, try engaging them. Ask them how they are doing, and whether they are lost. You can also ask them if they need your help. Be prepared that, even if they are verbal, you may not get a response to these questions; however, you will stand out to that child by being someone who showed care in a situation where most other people pretend they are invisible. You will be an anchor in a chaotic storm. Whether or not they want to use the anchor at that moment is up to them. If you do not get a response, continue to keep an eye on them and see if they warm up to you, without being pushy. Consider calling 9-1-1 as a last resort – if things really seem out of control or dire – or if you really feel at a loss for what else to do.
If the child does respond to your invitation, the first thing you can do is assure them that you will help them find their parent, caregiver, or teacher. They may have their caregiver or parents’ phone number memorized, in which case you can facilitate the phone call (phones can be wiped down with disinfectant later). This is preferable to calling the police (remember: the less police involvement, the better)! To build a brief bit of trust, ask them their name and share yours.
In either scenario, follow the instructions given to you by the parent, caregiver, teacher or police until the child is returned to their people. You may be late for that appointment you were headed to before you intervened. You can reschedule. You can rest assured that you’ll have just provided that child and their family with an immense amount of comfort in an otherwise dangerous and scary situation. A little care goes a long way.
“When elopements happen, I want to call someone who specializes in ASD and community safety and isn’t the police.”
Conclusion: Communities of care
It is nerve-wracking having to wonder each day, in the back of my mind, whether the young person I nanny is going to elope. It is exhausting, and also scary, to interact with the police who apprehend him, sometimes multiple times in a week. The adrenaline fatigue that settles in once he’s safe again is intense, but I welcome that fatigue over the alternative any and every day that he’s relocated and returned to the people who help keep him safe. It’s a lot to process for me, him, and his family, especially lately when these eloping behaviours have been peaking during the teen years.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger talks about the collective power within “communities of care”. I think that this concept can radically change the way we think about our role, in relation to others, in city life. During elopements, the things that stand out to me the most are the simple acts of kindness extended to the boy I nanny while he is away from me, his parents or teachers. Once, a thoughtful pharmacist offered him an emergency blanket and gave him a pair of socks — things the police didn’t have on hand because they aren’t prepared for these kinds of situations. Another time, a Canada Line attendant took charge of the situation so I didn’t have to, providing anonymous updates about his whereabouts over the PA system on the train. These efforts make all the difference in these situations because they prioritize care over criminalization and humanity over hesitancy.
When elopements happen, I want to call someone who specializes in ASD and community safety and isn’t the police. I want to introduce the boy I nanny to a safe place where he can go when he elopes if he’s too far or can’t find his way home so that there’s a haven in the chaos. I’d actually prefer that he find somewhere other than the train or police station — where a million things could go wrong in an instant—to go to. I want to be able to say, “this is where you go when you run away and don’t have your keys, coat or shoes. They’ll give you some shoes. These people will call me when you get here and make you feel comfy in the meantime. These people are not the police.”
I hope that one day, a space like this exists for Autistic youth and their families. Until then, I hope that we, as a community, start to increase the amount of care we extend towards each other and especially young people who struggle with elopement behaviours. Those few extra seconds of care from a bystander (you!) might just save the life of someone on the autism spectrum by helping them avoid the police.
Thank you, Cay!
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