Wandering and Autism: The Time I Lost My Son

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Every parent knows that panic. You look around the room and don’t immediately see one of your kids. Maybe you’re at the mall, maybe you’re at a park, or maybe you’re just at home. You call their name and peak around corners, sure that they’re just barely out of sight. After a few seconds, the panic really sets in. Where is your child? You only took your eyes off of them for a second…

How could they have disappeared?

In a split second, a dozen horrifying thoughts enter your mind as you try to keep your cool. You check another room, you look under the coat rack, or you call out again. For most stories, this is where the child pops their head around the corner and says, “What, mom? I’m right here”. For many families affected by autism, however, the story can end very, very differently.

Now, we all think we’ll never be that mom. Our children will never be the ones who run, right?

We all think we'll never be that mom. Our children will never be the ones who run, right? Let me tell you, I was that mom. My son bolted.

Let me tell you, I was that mom. My son bolted. This is our story.

In order to understand our story, there’s a few thing you need to know. The first? My middle son A-Man is autistic. It is frighteningly common for autistic children to wander, bolt, or elope. Basically, when autistic children get overwhelmed they can take off without warning. Some manage to get through locked doors, or will even find windows to escape. Even scarier is that a lot of the kids who wander or bolt will find themselves at the nearest body of water, and many of them will drown. Elopement is real. It’s scary. That pit in your stomach when your child is out of sight? It’s for a very, very good reason.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s go back to a birthday party for my older son, Mr. C. Our house was much too small for a party, so we rented a little party room at a local hall. Of course, we got there early to set up. Trust me, setting up for a birthday party is no picnic with just two parents and three tiny humans. The boys were playing and my husband and I were setting up tables and chairs, setting out snacks, taping up decorations, and overall completely distracted.

Then some family walked in. Of course, that snapped us back to reality and when we turned to chat, we realized there was only two little boys playing happily. We had that drop in our stomachs. We called out for A-Man and checked around corners. Suddenly the true horror set in as I opened the door to look outside.

Could he really have walked out the front door?

Yes. Yes, he could have. And he did.

We saw him in the parking lot of the hall running around and heading towards the street. I don’t think either of us has ever run so fast. The immediate relief felt when you get your child back into your arms when you know that they’re safe again, is indescribable. It’s also fleeting. Almost as immediately, the guilt seeps in, and then the fear.

What kind of a mother loses a child?

What will happen the next time he runs?

What if the guests didn’t arrive at just the right time?

Why did we care about the stupid decorations?

Was a birthday party more important than watching the children closely?

Has anyone been there?

Here’s the thing, Mama. This happens. It’s scary. It’s terrible. There are many wonderful things about autism, but this is one of the biggest downsides. This does not happen because we’re terrible mothers. This does not happen because of something we did. This does not happen because of something we didn’t do. It. Just. Happens.

So what do we autism mamas do?

Absolutely anything that we can do to help prevent wandering and keep our kids safe.

It means keeping all doors and windows locked, even if your child can’t reach them. It means checking more often than you think you have to. It means paying attention to that pit in your stomach during the split seconds that you don’t see your children at the park.

It means knowing your child’s triggers and catching sensory overwhelm before it begins.

It means setting up every preventative measure that you can.

Talking about it.

Being prepared for it.

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We all think we'll never be that mom. Our children will never be the ones who run, right? Let me tell you, I was that mom. My son bolted.

Sharing is caring!

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