In the McNulty household, the rate of elopement has been on a steady incline.
Elopement is a common behavioral occurrence among those with autism where a person will leave a safe and supervised place and expose him/herself to potential danger. This behavior is one of the largest causes of death among those with autism. Often wandering is goal related, where the person is seeking a return to a favorite place or is seeking to escape an undesirable place.
The McNulty household has been dealing with an increased rate of elopement of late, most recently last week. Since we moved to the next town over, Lulu has increased her eloping game, escaping or trying to escape at least a couple of dozen times. If you are on your game, you’ll catch her before she’s off property or even before she’s descended the steps. If you’re not, well, let’s just say that you might be getting some exercise.
Lulu’s affinity for eloping started back in 2011, just two short years after she was diagnosed with autism. The first truly significant time she wandered was when we were at Moe’s which is within sight of Chuck E. Cheese. John caught her when she was nearly to the parkway. After that she had wandered away while we were at Wegmans, from our old house, at the horse farm, and more recently from our current home. When we were at the old house, she would go across the street to our neighbor’s house…luckily Tara has a special place in her heart for that crazy little Lulu, and quite honestly, I felt comforted knowing that if she had run to Tara’s house, she would be very well cared for. Fast forward to this year, and in addition to running across the street, Lulu has wandered from us at the Color Run and from our previous and current homes. At the Color Run I think that she simply wanted to get away from all of those crazy, loud people (can’t say that I blame her). I think that currently she just wants to go back to her old home. Since the move, she has been running to the church next door.
Little by little I’ve been securing the house with the help of my best friend Mary. Alarms have been put up and special locks have been worked on. It doesn’t help that Lulu has figured out how to disable the door alarms.
Lulu’s most recent escapade happened while I was at work. It seems that she had left her iPad playing loudly while she slipped out the door, so her disappearance was unnoticed for a period of time. She didn’t go into the church next door because the doors were locked. Instead, John called 911 as he drove around the neighborhood looking for her. They had a girl who fit the description: a non-verbal girl who was wearing a purple sweatshirt. Lulu had entered the home where a woman was taking care of her young granddaughter. It is my understanding that the woman had been quite startled and ended up contacting 911. Lulu had made it a quarter of a mile away from our home.
I learned about this as I was getting ready to leave work. To say that I was an enormous mix of emotions was an understatement. I began texting my “fixit” friends to gain advice on how to shore up the house. Then I got home, checked on Lulu’s whereabouts, and gathered more details of the situation from John. (Glass half-full moment: Lulu was dressed!!)
Then I headed for Lowe’s. I called my dad when I got there, who just didn’t know what to say when I began crying because I felt so scared and helpless, though he was very supportive. He suggested jingle bells for the doors.
While in Lowe’s, I contacted my friends who work in this field with me to find out how other families handle these sorts of situations, to ask advice about possible residential placement if her eloping continues and worsens, and to find out what sorts of things I could try (additional respite, perhaps?). I called Lulu’s behavioral therapist, who then seemed to begin an action plan for Lulu’s safety and my own peace of mind. I brought up medication, but they all confirmed what I already knew...medicating her for the sole purpose of preventing her from running will not prevent elopement if it is goal-driven, which it is in her case.
I purchased special locks for the sliding glass door and a bike chain & padlock for our gated backyard. I then went over to the Christmas Tree Shoppe to see if they had jingle bells. They did not have any that were Christmassy, but they DID have Halloween jingle bells. Score one for Mom!! Let me say that Lulu loved them. But then she figured out their intended use, and she was NOT happy! Sorry Lu, but a mom has to do what a mom has to do!
I think that Lulu knew that she scared me. When I came back from Lowe's, she came over to me, hugged me tightly, and didn't let go. She did this without prompting...another milestone in my eyes.
After speaking with Lulu’s service coordinator on that following Monday, I learned what doors are definitely shut for the time being (residential placement), and what doors could possibly be opened. It’s actually a positive thing to know what you can’t access…you just turn your attention to the things that are accessible rather than beating your head against the wall.
I did receive information about Project Lifesaver, and I’ve been in contact with them. They provide a bracelet that the child will wear at all times, and it has a GPS chip in it. I’m not sure how Lulu will take to that, but she MUST. STAY. SAFE.
At this time the only thing that I really know is that hypervigilance will need to be the driving force to keep Lulu safe. Locks, alarms and jingle bells will help give you a few extra seconds or even minutes, but ultimately knowing her whereabouts might mean that you sit with her in the same room…might mean that you put your phone away…might mean that you simply sit and watch her. Hardly seems fair to an 11 year old girl who should be able to have a little more independence as she grows older…