How can I help my child?

How to keep a ‘runner’ safe

There are times when an autistic child may find their situation too hard to cope with. When that happens, there are some ways of trying to cope with it, but few are as easy as running away. When something happens that a child finds distressing or uncomfortable, taking themselves as far as their legs can carry them seems like a quick fix.

In some instances, it’s the only option, particularly if they feel backed into a corner. In this blog post, we address why some autistic kids are ‘runners’ and how you, as a parent, can help to keep them safe and secure.

Why do kids run away?

There are many different reasons why autistic children decide to run for it. The most common ones are:

  • Sensory overload. If the sights, sounds, scents and everything else environmental becomes too much to bear, running away seems like the most logical thing to do
  • Anxiety. However it’s caused, anxiety can do a lot of bad things to an autistic child’s wellbeing. If, for example, they’re anxious because they’re about to go to a doctor’s appointment but can’t face it, running away can help them avoid having to go through with it
  • Not liking what they’re doing. Using a PE lesson at school as an example, if there’s a group exercise that they don’t like and can’t face up to doing, running away will make it stop
  • Making a point. If there’s something your autistic child has been unhappy about for some time and has decided “enough is enough”, they’ll want to find a dramatic way to let you know it. Running away is, in many cases, as emphatic a way as possible to express an extreme dislike for something like, say, eating vegetables
  • Running for the sake of running. Sometimes, there’s no real logic behind running away; they might just do it for fun
  • Seeing something they like the look of. There may be a possibility that your child sees something in the distance that looks fascinating, with their first instinct to see how it is up close

When this happens and you’re around, knowing what to do in order to get them back is tricky. There’s no catch-all solution for this problem, as the circumstances for each scenario can vary greatly. However, you can do a few things to help them feel safe, even if they’re moving further away from your sight.

Ways to ensure safety

Before a child decides to do a runner, it’s worth looking out for the signs that they may be thinking about it. These are:

  • Expressing sadness, anger or anxiety
  • Appearing restless
  • Appearing bored or hesitant
  • Trying to avoid engaging in conversation with those around them

Then, once you see these signs, it’s time to figure out how to keep your child safe in a way that’s not too forceful or overloading.

Should your child choose to run away from a place they don’t like, try to visit said place as little as possible. Whether it’s because it’s overstimulating, conjures up bad memories from their past or for any other reason, it means you’re not having to worry about them running away as often as you may have done before.

For safety, think about giving them some training for things like climbing and swimming. If they choose to run away while in a park or some countryside, such training can help them to overcome obstacles like lakes, walls and trees. Autistic-friendly climbing lessons for kids are available in St Werburghs.

Making sure you’re able to get in touch with your child is a must. For that reason, it’s worth getting them a mobile phone so you can ring them if they’re out of your sight. It doesn’t need to be a fully-blown smartphone – a simple one for under £10 is available from shops like Argos. One that accepts calls and texts will do the job cheaply and sufficiently.

Keeping an eye on them

To make sure your son or daughter doesn’t stray too far from your eyes, there are a few ways to do that, such as:

If you’re in a closed space such as a kids’ party venue, ask someone else to watch your child whilst you do as well. That way, you’re able to make sure they’re not going to go somewhere that could be unsafe

Find a quiet or safe space they can go to. If you’re both outdoors and they find a walk or exercise a little too stressful, find a quiet space such as a shelter, bandstand or park bench and let them run there. Make sure they’re in your eyeline, though

Have another responsible adult come out with you – they could be the other parent, a friend, an aunt, uncle or grandparent. If you’re unable to stop your child from running away on your own, having someone else with you can make all the difference

Keeping runners safe at home

A runner might find enough reasons to run away from home, but you can keep them safe without necessarily locking them in. If there’s something that overloads them such as a bright light or appliance that makes a humming noise, remove it and replace with something less stimulating.

Locking all the doors and windows at night is a simple preventative measure. Keep the keys well hidden too in case your child looks for them; at the top of your wardrobe could work.

Other ways of proofing your home from runners include turning their bedroom into a sanctuary and giving them space when needed.

About the author

Luke Aylward

Luke Aylward

Luke is an Aspie copywriter and designer based in Leeds. He's the chairman of a local support group and enjoys providing accessible info around all things autism.