The day my son disappeared

Many parents will have experienced that heart-stopping moment of being in a public place and suddenly losing sight of their child.  For families like mine who have an autistic child, such moments can be a common experience of living with their child’s autism.

Many people with autism can become so overwhelmed by the world around them that they can end up having a meltdown, becoming aggressive and/or trying to escape from the situation they are in.  My 13 year old son is no exception.  Smells, noise, people, heat, unfamiliar places, a change in routine, how something looks can trigger a flight response which for my son means running off in any old direction.

It would be easy to think that the solution to this would not go out at all and avoid the things that upset him but my son doesn’t always react in the ways I describe.  This is the challenge of living with him.  Sometimes he can cope, sometimes he can’t.  Sometimes we can see signs of stress and take action to avoid a meltdown; sometimes we can’t.  If there is any surety with my son’s autism it is this: it is reliably unpredictable which makes our lives quite difficult at times.

As a result we sometimes find ourselves in public spaces where our son has run off.  When he was younger he was easier to manage as he was smaller and we could keep up with him and avert the nightmare situation of calling the emergency services.  Inside though I was fearful that one day we would loose him.

That day came, last year.

It was just an ordinary trip to our local library and coffee shop, a visit that we had done many times before with our children.  It is usually a safe place for my son due to its quiet and familiarity but on this occasion the coffee shop was particularly busy.  As this was starting to stress my son, I suggested that we leave.  He refused as he wanted his drink, as was his routine when we visit the library.  Unfortunately he started to become even more angry and eager to avoid further problems we hurried our drinks and left the building.  This did not settle him however and no sooner had we left the building than he ran off.

Ignoring the stares and rude comments, I told  my husband to run after him whilst I took my younger daughter and waited at the car.  At this point I felt confident enough that my husband and son would soon meet up with us but when my husband appeared without him, I knew things had gone very wrong.  My husband explained that he had tried to keep up with him but due to the number of Saturday shoppers he had lost him in the crowds.  He therefore decided to check whether our son had returned to the car but clearly he hadn’t.  Panicking, we decided that my husband would return to the shopping centre and alert the security staff whilst I would return home with my daughter and wait to see if my son made his way back there.

At home a while later I received a telephone call from my husband who told me that the security staff had alerted the police.  The emergency services were looking for my son, the thing that I had dreaded for years was actually happening.

My husband meanwhile was now staying in the shopping centre and working with the security staff and police who gave me a series of instructions.  I was to stay at home and wait to see if my son would return there of his own accord, I was to keep near to my telephone and I was to ring a particular telephone number if (when) my son returned.  I also had to give a detailed description of what my son looked like and what he was wearing.  I also volunteered details of his ASD.  I knew as he was in meltdown that he would likely to be impulsive and emotional and that it was important that the police were aware of this.

The wait was horrendous.  I couldn’t sit down, I couldn’t do anything and instead I paced up and down in front of the window that looks out onto the quiet residential road where I live.  Where is he, which way would he come back, probably from the right I thought as this was the way to town.  Of course I had no idea how my son would deal with this situation or whether he would be able to get back home on his own.  I felt totally powerless and frightened beyond words.

Hours passed.  Then during one of my many glances out of the window I noticed my son walking along the road crying his eyes out.  The relief at seeing him though was indescribable.  I opened the door  and he walked in muttering in between his sobs that his feet hurt.  That was all he said and the only thing that appeared to bother him - his painful feet.  I was desperate to hug him, as any mother would their missing child, but I couldn’t as I knew my son would not tolerate a hug while he was in this semi meltdown state.   So I helped him to settle down in front of the television before calling the search off.

Shortly after, my husband returned home and the afternoon was then spent helping the police with their questions and paperwork.  The police were very pleasant, I have to admit, and didn’t make any judgemental comments to us at all.  Instead they offered to place his details on a list of vulnerable people so should he get into bother again, they would be aware of his difficulties.  We were quite happy with this and obliged.

After that I slumped on the settee overwhelmed with emotional exhaustion that rendered me absolutely useless for the whole weekend.  My son meanwhile, oblivious of the trauma we had gone through, had started to settle back into the comfort of his own home, though still edgy as he usually is when he comes out of a meltdown.

It wasn’t long though before we started to wonder where he went to and how he got back.  So about a week later, when all was calm, we drove around our town and gently encouraged our son to show us how he found his way back home.  We believed it was important to do this so should the same thing happen again we had an idea of where he could be found.  It appeared that he relied on familiar landmarks to find his way back - his great grandmother’s house, his old nursery group, his old school, the garage.  It was quite phenomenal how he was able to do this but also massively reassuring that he managed to get back by his own initiative.

There is also a follow-up to this post – covering their backs.

This post is day 7 of the nablopomo challenge.

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14 Responses to The day my son disappeared

  1. Helen Gregory says:

    I so know how you felt on this day. My Asperger’s son is now 19 and still on occassions does a “runner” during a meltdown! Over the years we have learnt that if he is in the area of our home town then he WILL find his way home, also moaning about sore feet that hurt! The problem comes when we are away from our hometown, however, since he was 4 yrs old, he has always returned to our car, caravan, holiday home etc. Lord knows how he finds his way in strange places but he does! We often find out months later that he had on occassion been able to see us the whole time! Even knowing this it does not lessen the panic I feel when he goes as several times he has been taken advantage of by beggars asking for money, once he even gave his phone to one to make a call, luckily they didn’t run off with it!

    At 19 years old, 6’6″ tall, size 14 shoes, weighing 18 stone with a long beard and hair down to his bum I know he still wouldn’t be able to defend himself if the need arose and this has been proven on several occassions.
    It is truly VERY difficult to explain what we go through every day having to deal with his funnyisms and we have lost many “friends” along the way through a lack of understanding on their part, however, our family and TRUE friends have stood by us at all times thankfully! Zack is the most gentle, most loving (when he wants to be and on his terms), wonderful young man I know and I really wouldn’t want to be without him! As long as I live I will fight for him and his rights to a life that HE can COPE with!

    What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger!

  2. Oh goodness, what a scare for you, must have been awful! I’m so glad he came back to you safely

  3. Aspieside says:

    That would be so scary! I am so glad he came home!
    Emotionally exhausted, I can relate. That is how I feel right now.

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Aspieside, sorry to hear you’re feeling so emotionally exhausted at the moment. I know the feeling all too well; it seems to be part of the job description as a special needs parent. Hope things get easier soon. Deb

  4. Steph says:

    It’s like living life on edge all the time, isn’t it? Knowing that the average member of the public is likely to not understand and make them more upset is tough. Have to admit, when I read it, my first thougt would be that I’d have blamed my husband for that – so not fair but that’s the added stress for you. Very tough on relationships :(

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Thats very true. For a few minutes I did blame my husband (hard not to) but I decided against saying anything as he was already cut up by it. Deb

  5. Debbie says:

    What an awful day for you! My son ( not ASD but only 4 1/2 , left his grandma’s house, convinced I had set off for the beach without him ( I was actually in the loo). He walked a whole mile and crossed 3 roads to the beach and I had the worst 45 mins of my life, till I caught up with him. I have huge amounts of sympathy for you….

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your experiences. It just shows that these things can happen to all children whether they have additional needs or not and for us parents, its the worst time ever not knowing where they are or whats happened to them. I’m glad you caught up with your son. Deb.

  6. Galina V says:

    Oh my, that brought tears to my eyes. Our sone made an escape one day as well, when we were in the Blenheim Park and there was a band playing and lots of people. We immediately alerted the security staff there. He was only about 5 years old, non verbal, very vulnerable, and it took him literally seconds to disappear among the people. I was panicking, thinking the worst, there was a car park nearby, a little train station and all the horrors of abductions were screaming in my mind. He was found quite soon, in about 10 minutes, as he followed a family we knew to the playground. But this was arguably the worst 10 minutes of my life.

    • Aspie in the family says:

      What a frightening experience for you all! I know what you mean about imagining the horrors of abductions. With my son out there for hours and in meltdown too, I was worried sick that someone could pick him up. Even though he is verbal he is unable to think rationally when in meltdown sometimes. Luckily he got back. Deb x

  7. Jazzygal says:

    I read this with my heart in my mouth! Every mother’s worse nighmare. I’d be beside myself if my son went missing, even now! I am very impressed at how your son made his own way home. Especially since he was mid-meltdown. That is very re-assuring ;-)

    xx Jazzy

    • Aspie in the family says:

      LOL, I’ve just come from your blog Jazzy (have left a comment on the musical theatre piece; brought back many happy memories). Back to this post, it was a dreadful day but, as you say, reassuring that he did find his way back. I hope we never have to go through this again. Deb xx

  8. lucy says:

    What a harrowing experience for you. Several of the pupils I worked with would escape at every opportunity. One girl, aged 14 had a full helicopter police search mounted when she seemingly disappeared one evening. She was found in the neighbours’ house. They were on holiday and she was listening to their CDs, happy as can be.
    Thank goodness your son had the presence of mind to go home.

    • Aspie in the family says:

      We’ve had a lot of escape attempts over the years but we’ve always managed to keep up with him. Now he’s getting bigger its getting harder. I think we were lucky on that occasion as during some meltdowns he can loose his ability to reason properly. Scary experience. Deb x

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