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!