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.