In an effort to raise a bit more “AutismAwareness,” I’d like to discuss “elopement.” I invite other autistics to add in their own experiences in the comments—this could be educational! But as far as what I’m about to say, I’m really just speaking to my own experience and thoughts.
First, I’d like to say that “elopement” is a ridiculous term. Right up there with “differently abled,” IMHO. It’s running away. It’s wandering. Call it what it is!
Secondly—and this is in response to an “autism warrior mom” who recently came at me to defend ABA—no one “dies from elopement,” just like no one dies from “running away.” Yes, there are all kinds of ways that one can meet their end running away, but those would be the cause of death—drowning, starvation, hypothermia, murder, etc. I don’t know why “died from elopement” rubs me the wrong way, but it does.
Now that my pedantry is out of the way, I’d like to discuss autistic running and wandering. It’s been really upsetting to see how it’s discussed among allistic (non-autistic) parents of autistics. I feel like there’s this idea that we just mindlessly wander, or run without intention, or that there’s no thought at all involved.
I’m sure that idea is a comfort to warrior parents but—at least in my case—that’s not accurate.
I ran to get away. Plain and simple.
Living with parents who are awful, unaccommodating, without empathy, who are abusive—verbally, physically, emotionally—is bad for anyone. I’m not discounting the awfulness of abuse when it happens to allistic kids.
But picture being alone. You aren’t like your own family, and everyone—even family—treats you like an outsider. You don’t relate to your “peers” at school, are constantly bullied, etc.… and on top of that, those closest to you are awful to you. Home feels like such an unsafe space, that even school—bullies, noise, crowds, and all—feels like a little bit of respite.
That is the reality I lived, and that’s the reality that so many of my autistic friends lived.
So when I ran, it was to get away.
I had many thoughts on this: Maybe a nice family would find and rescue me. Maybe I’d find my “real” parents (I often wondered if I’d been switched at birth, being that different from everyone I was related to). Maybe I’d get arrested, and somehow that would lead to a better life. Maybe I’d get kidnapped, maybe even worse; but anything would have been better than what I was living.
I had thoughts like that at least as early as six or seven years old—as far as I can remember. It may even have been earlier.
On a less… dark… note, I also did my share of “wandering” at school, usually at recess. Our recess area was a playground and fields, bordered with sidewalk—and we were not to go beyond that sidewalk. I did, and I did so knowingly, because that sidewalk represented a clear delineation between utter chaos, and peace. Beyond that sidewalk was a few meters of lightly wooded area, ending in fencing, separating the school area from the homes beyond it. I would sit among the trees, playing with leaves, and generally enjoying the solitude and quiet.
In the winter time, I’d hang out in the space between the snow drifts and that fencing, usually making a fort-type area. I’d carve seating out of the snow, and again… just enjoy the solitude. Sometimes I’d miss hearing the buzzer, of course, but I really needed that mental health break. Sometimes, that fifteen minutes, twice a day, was the only peace and quiet I had access to. It really made a difference!
As I got older—about eleven years old—I did more wandering. I enjoyed it, and I would purposefully try to get lost, almost as a challenge. I loved getting on my bike and just randomly turning down streets, eventually ending up on the far side of the city. It was fun. It was exploring, it was learning new things, seeing new sights, and it was being 100% in control of my environment.
I could go somewhere more quiet if I liked, I could head in areas with fewer people if I liked, and I didn’t have anyone telling me how broken I was. It was peaceful. I enjoyed having that peace.
Running, wandering… it was always conscious, and with purpose. It was escaping a bad environment, and that rings true for others I know. Maybe it wasn’t full-out abuse, maybe it was just being in a situation that was too noisy, or too bright, or whatever… but many/most of those I know who ran… it was to get away from something, or someone.
In my experience with autism warrior parents, they don’t want to hear this, because it contradicts their victimization narrative. They take it as an attack on them, rather than as a valuable source of information that they can learn from. They don’t want to consider the possibility that they are what the kid is running away from, whether personally, or as a matter of the overall environment provided.
They would rather buy a leash and subject the kid to ABA therapy than invest time in investigating what could possibly be inspiring their kid to run. It could literally be as simple as their TV and/or lights emitting a high pitched noise that is intolerable. Maybe the cleaning solution used on the floors in the house just smells super noxious. Either can definitely inspire an autistic to run.
Imagine being put through 40 hours a week of abusive compliance therapy, because your parents didn’t want to change the types of lightbulb in the house!
In this sense, running and wandering are very much like many of the “negative” aspects of autism that parents want to “therapy” out of a kid, rather than address the underlying issue. Maybe it’s banging their heads. Maybe it’s another stim. Maybe it’s something verbal, like yelling—these are all signals that something is wrong. They’re all communication.
Compliance therapy isn’t going to make that lightbulb or that cleaning solution any less painful to deal with, it’s just going to make that kid bottle it up.
Cutting off a major means of communication doesn’t do anything good for the person being “silenced,” whether literally or figuratively silenced.
The completely wild thing, to me, is that the concept of running and wandering to get away from something shouldn’t be foreign to many people. You take vacations to get away from work. You go to the gym to get away from stress. You leave toxic friendships, and…I’m sure there’s some sort of sensory equivalent, but to be honest, the amount of sensory hell that is acceptable to allistics is completely beyond my comprehension. I’m sure some must like, leave restaurants that are too loud, or…?
I guess what I really want parents to take away from this is that anything your autistic child is doing that is annoying or distressing to you… is because something is annoying or distressing to them. You can take that as a personal slight, or you can take that as inspiration to make the environment better for your child.
Personally, I hope you go with the latter, as it will make things better for everyone.