More on Autism

Another Autistic child died over Christmas.  The four-year old boy and his family had traveled from New York to visit his grandmother’s house in South Carolina.  The mom left him in the care of his grandmother on Christmas Eve evening, and he disappeared into the unfamiliar surroundings when the grandma turned around for a moment.  His body was found in a pond down the road the day after Christmas.

The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is even truer if the child in question is Autistic.  One of the symptoms known to parents of children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome is known as “elopement.”  I’m not talking about running off and getting married in the dead of the night.  Elopement is common among children with Asperger’s, and it is where they may start off playing in their own house or yard, then with no notice to an adult, they decide to go explore some other place.  Meanwhile, the adult, who only turned their back for literally a moment, is frantically searching for the lost child.  Elopement is estimated to affect just under fifty percent of all Autistic children.  Furthermore, it’s speculated that the more severe the autism, the more likely (and more frequently)  the child will elope.

When my son was little, he eloped at least once a week.  My grandmother babysat him while I worked, and generally once a week, she called me frantic with worry because she couldn’t find Jeremy.  One minute, he was right beside her in the backyard while she was hanging out laundry or gardening, and the next minute, she turned around, and he was gone.  Inevitably, I had to leave the office and go drive through the neighborhood searching for him.  Sometimes, he’d be close to home playing in a neighbor’s yard.  Other times, he’d be over a mile away wandering the streets.

Daytime wasn’t the only time I had to worry about Jeremy escaping.  Once, my daughter went with my grandma on vacation, and Jeremy and I were home alone.  He was just under two at the time.  I put him in his crib (which was in my bedroom), and I fell asleep shortly thereafter.  Around three in the morning, I woke to the sound of banging on my front door.  Frankly, it scared the bejeebers out of me!  I went to the front door, and that’s when I noticed it was unlocked.  I looked outside, and there was a woman holding Jeremy!  She told me she lived up the road, and she was just getting home when she saw him in the middle of the road!  She knew where he lived because she’d seen him several times with my grandma when they walked to the store.  I never felt so guilty in my entire life as I did knowing I slept through my child escaping my home!  I still thank God to this day for that woman who brought him home safely.  And I still shudder at the thought of what could have happened to Jeremy, not to mention that I may have been arrested for neglect had someone else found him.

After that, I installed chain locks on all the doors.  Those did not deter my son from escaping.  He was very tall and strong for his age, and it didn’t take much for him to figure out how to pull a chair over to the door, stack a toy or spaghetti pot on the chair, and unlock the chain.  I seriously couldn’t even go to the restroom without fear of him “breaking out.”  Needless to say, showers, cooking dinner, washing dishes, or other things that took my attention away from him for more than a second were nearly impossible.

Now keep in mind that Jeremy wasn’t diagnosed with his Asperger’s Syndrome until he was in the third grade.  So while all this went on, I had no idea what was wrong with him, what was wrong with me, and why I was such a failure as a mother!  If you’ve ever had one of those moments where for a split-second, you’re in a store and you look around, and your child’s gone, you’ve experienced a fraction of how this felt.  When he was diagnosed and the developmental pediatrician told me this “condition” was actually a common symptom called “elopement,” I nearly cried as I realized that it was nothing I had done that caused my little boy want to constantly run away from home, but it was just the way he was wired.

Every time I hear the news about another Autistic child that’s gone missing, it gives me chills because I know firsthand just how frantic those parents are with worry, and how much they blame themselves for turning away for literally a second or two before their child disappeared.  I know the guilt they feel and the stress and worry they endure while they search for their babies.  Worse yet, I know the shame they feel when they suffer the scrutiny of people who don’t understand that these Autistic kids are much different than their “regular-brained” counterparts.

With a “regular-brained” child, you can run to the bathroom when the need hits you and not have to drag them in there with you and disrupt their playtime or television show.  You can leave them in the living room to play or watch TV while you prepare dinner in the kitchen.  You can lock your doors and go to sleep at night and know your children will be in your house in the morning.  You don’t have to put a leash on them just to take them to the store for two items.  You can walk in your backyard and stop and say hello to your neighbor without fear your child will climb the fence in those three seconds.  You can run to the other room to pick up the phone before you run back to the room where your child is to talk.  You can literally let go of their hand while you walk outside to pick up your newspaper.  You can put them down for a nap and relax in another room and be confident that they’ll alert you when they wake up.  You can’t do any of those things with an Autistic child who’s prone to elopement.

I’ll be back the first Sunday of next month with More on Autism, and I’ll be here tomorrow with my regular blogpost.  Thanks for stopping by!

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36 thoughts on “More on Autism

  1. How scary! I lost my oldest son once in a shop when he was about 4. My youngest son wanted to pay the lady at the till so I lifted him up because he couldnt reach, and in those few moments my other son was gone.

    On another note, I’d be interested to know how autism affects children’s reactions to the unfamiliar, with regard to places, people, objects etc. Maybe you could write a post about it. sometime.

  2. Most times I like to divert you with a bit of off the wall humour by way of a comment. However, some times to do such a thing is plainly in poor taste, this being one of those occasions. I’ve said it before, this stuff is educational to the uninitiated such as me and thus important. Bloody well written up by the way!

      • These are my favourite posts – I like getting insight into how different minds work. Plainly I’m not autistic yet knowing that my own mind doesn’t work to stereotype has always fascinated me so post like this allow me to think and fathom in a new direction.

      • Well, if I end up posting what I have planned for next month, you should really get a snapshot of a different kind of brain. Sadly, I don’t think most Autistic people are like me and able to see the differences in people. I think because I’m also an empath, that allows me to know what is “off” about the autistic things that my mind wants to believe is “normal”. I’m afraid more often than not, autistic people like to think the world is made up of cookie cutter people and it troubles them when they find out differently. At least it’s that way with bot my kids. Cheers!

  3. this is so sad and a wonderful reminder and wake up call. i’ve taught kids who were all over the spectrum and had some who were runners, and when that happens you can not ever let down our guard. these children have all been wonderful and sometimes need our help to support them, beyond the norm, and we have to remember to take nothing for granted where they are concerned. what a well-written piece, rachel.

  4. That was a new one for me. Thinking back when I was teaching in a private school, there was a youngster in the school who was apt to elope. Administration had no way to accommodate that little fellow, so his mother took him home to home school him.

  5. I had no idea, Rachel. Thank you for sharing this information and your story. Were you able to work with Jeremy on this as he got older?

    Like coldhandboyack, I also had a grandfather and my husband had a grandmother who “eloped” several times. I know it was difficult on the caregivers, and you know someone with dementia is not going to change. But it is still different from being a mom and questioning yourself and your parenting abilities. (There’s a recent horror movie that explores this, “The Babadook.”) Of course, we all know that you are a wonderful mom! Hugs!

    • I guess they just outgrow the “eloping” aspect… Although when my daughter got into her teens, she started running away from home frequently, and when my son reached his teens, he frequently failed to call home if he changed his plans and wasn’t going to be coming home. The Babadook sounds interesting… I have’t heard of it.

      • I think the not calling home might be typical for many teenage boys from what I’ve heard. 🙂

        The Babadook is an Australian film. It only played in one theater around here in Philadelphia, but it’s on a lot of US best 10 movies of the year list. We just saw it On Demand. It involves a very creepy children’s book with a creature called the babadook, and a mom who is losing it with taking care of a very demanding son. So. . . I don’t know if you’d like it or not. 🙂

      • I looked up the preview after I read this, and it does look like something I’d like. I usually love films like that EXCEPT when they peter off at the end. When that happens, I feel like I’ve just wasted two hours of my life. LOL!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing, for raising awareness and understanding. I am so sorry for the self-doubting you experienced before you understood what Jeremy was doing, and for the terror of the times he was missing. ❤

  7. I apologize. For some reason, I left this comment under the wrong article. I enjoyed your other article as well, but I meant to leave this comment here. Sorry for the confusion.
    Beautiful post. Others don’t understand how hard it can be. My son has Asperger’s Syndrome, but the elopement has improved as he has become older, but my other friends who have children with Autism aren’t as fortunate. Not only do they fear elopement, but children with Autism tend to be drawn to water, so if a child disappears, time is critical for this reason. It breaks my heart when I hear of another tragedy, but I am so happy that you are bringing awareness to it, so that it will help others in the future. I truly love your blog.

  8. That is so sad! The poor family… And that must be terrifying… Our Labrador retriever, Diamond, used to be prone to running away, and one time I was so scared that he’d get run over by a car that I went out in the snow in bare feet and walked a couple of blocks until my younger brother came after me and told me that Diamond had come home and brought me my snow boots. I can’t imagine how much more worried I would get if it was my younger brother or sister instead.

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