I had a request from a reader (thanks for following me Jen!) asking me to address the topic of ASD children who are runners. Although my focus is to look at it from the behavioral side, I first suggest thinking of the safety issues. Check out the website AWAARE Collaboration (AWAARE = Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education). They also have a Facebook Page. They address ways to secure your home, tracking devices, ID bracelets, getting swimming lessons for your child, alerting neighbors, etc. Check out these things first – they may save a life!
Teaching children to come to us
One goal we have for children who run, is that we want our children to learn to come to us when we call out for them. Therefore one of the first things to work on from the behavioral side is the fact that usually we ask our children to come to us when we want them to do something they don’t want to do. Think about it! We call them to come and do a chore, or to do their homework, or to leave for school, or to go to bed, or to come inside, or to otherwise stop doing something they want to do and to start doing something we want them to do! Even worse, they may associate our calling to them with “You’re in trouble now!” which is more likely to trigger wanting to get away from us than wanting to come to us. So when children take off or wander off, and then we call out to them to come to us, children often do not have a positive association to this!
So, we want to change that association by making repeated efforts to call them to us for good things. If you child is outside playing, call to them to come to you, and offer a treat, and then let them return to playing. If your child is at a store (and behaving well), ask them to come to you, and then hand them a little money to buy something (but not if they have wandered off or just had bad behavior because then you are reinforcing the bad behavior). If your child likes physical affection and praise, call them to come to you at home and give a hug or a complement and then let them return to what they were doing. If they like being read to, call them to come to you and ask if they would like you to read them a story. After the story let them return to what they were doing. For this to be effective, you would need to do this repeatedly, so that over time your child knows that good things may come from being called – not just aversive things. You can also address coming to you when called with whatever reward program you are using. When you call out and they come right away, they could earn a token as part of a token economy system, which they can “cash in” later towards some kind of incentive.
What is the function of the behavior?
The other main area to address is determining the function of the behavior and then working on a prevention plan. What is motivating the running? Is the child escaping a demand (someone wanting them to do something they don’t want to do), escaping over stimulation (a crowded place, bright lights, loud noises), seeking stimulation (wanting to look at something bright and shiny or going to ride the escalator 50 times), getting attention (this will get my mom to give me attention!), or gaining a desired object (food in the neighbor’s fridge in the garage)? If you can figure out the pattern, then your goal is to come up with a replacement behavior. Ask yourself: What alternative but appropriate behavior would meet the same need for the child? Rather than running when ___(overstimulated, bored, wanting attention, wanting something to eat), I want my child to ____ (define replacement behavior, such as: tell me they need a break, point to a feeling face, pick an activity to do from their “bored list”, ask me to play a game, show me they want a snack). Then your job is to determine what skill does the child need to be taught in order to do the replacement behavior and how can you set up a plan to reward the use of this new replacement behavior.
What things have worked for your child? Please share your ideas below!
Please also check out my YouTube video, on how to use the visual support of a stop sign on a door or gate to remind the child of the boundary.