(This blog was originally written in December 0f 2019. Since I wrote it, we have dealt with another episode of elopement where Austin slipped under a gap in a fence and was gone for 20 minutes before being found by law enforcement)
|It feels like one of the least understood, least discussed behaviors in autism is elopement. |
Elopement is defined as wandering, or leaving a facility or environment by a person with cognitive challenges or special needs.
Choosing to write about this has been a struggle for me. I don’t want to come across as if I’m looking for sympathy. I’m definitely not.
I also am hesitant to put details of what we’ve experienced out there for others to judge and maybe assume we’re negligent parents. We beat ourselves up enough as it is.
But because I want to bring some awareness to this behavior, and because I know it helps others out there going through the same, I’ve decided to go ahead with it.
I certainly had no idea about elopement before we had Austin. I knew elderly people with Alzheimer’s or dementia are prone to wandering, but I never knew it was a problem for kids and sometimes adults with ASD.
About half of children with autism elope. From 2009-2011, 91% of accidental deaths in children 14 and under with autism was due to drowning. Two out of three parents of elopers report their child having a close call with traffic.
Most people we’ve talked to assume it’s the typical behavior of young toddlers who have to be supervised and held on to when out in public. But this type of wandering is usually outgrown. Kids eventually learn to stay close to their parents, they learn about danger.
This is not the case with Austin. He is 6. He’s bigger and faster than a toddler. He watches for opportunities to run. And though he is past the toddler years, he doesn’t understand the dangers of bodies of water or moving vehicles.
He is aware if I get distracted for a second. No matter how much space he has to play, he is constantly testing fences, gates and doors for a way out. If we’re not locked in our home, or another safe place, we cannot even glance away from him.
Elopement has caused us more stress, more exhaustion, and more interruptions to daily life than the speech delays, sensory issues, sleep challenges, self injurious behaviors, and anything else that Austin has struggled with.
We’ve tried medications. He’s in ABA therapy. We talk to him constantly about safety and cars and danger and boo boos. And yet, this one most terrifying behavior persists.
I’ve lost count of the number of heart stopping, adrenaline pounding moments of terror we’ve experienced in the last year alone. The fear that I’ve lost my vulnerable little boy. That I’ve failed him in the one way I cannot.
Our worst experience with eloping so far is THE NIGHT that I can’t seem to move on from even months later.
Austin was in a childcare setting one evening at church while I was in a class. On my way to pick him after, I was stopped and told that he had just gotten out and they couldn’t find him.
When I was told, I froze. My body couldn’t move. My mind slowed. All I could feel was the terror, the panic in the pit of my stomach. The instant shaking over my entire body.
I struggled to get my phone out to call 911, feeling as if I was in one of those dreams where your body won’t do what you want it to.
Moments passed, as I struggled, mind screaming, body frozen, and then they found him.
He was found in the middle of a very busy road, in the pitch dark, by an off duty detective.
We would later learn that he ran down a long hallway, through two sets of doors, the foyer, and across the large property, to the road in under three minutes as recorded on surveillance cameras.
I very nearly lost my little boy that night. Six months later I don’t think I’ve yet come to terms with it. I’ve been waking in the night from a sound sleep with panic attacks. I can feel the panic rising up for seemingly no reason. As someone who has never struggled with anxiety, I’ve wondered where this is coming from.
But then I remember the day he got out and we found him by a pond. The day he got away from me in the store. The time he darted out of my in-laws house straight into the street. And of course, THE NIGHT.
It makes perfect sense, those things considered, why I wake up in sheer panic. My mind doesn’t know how to turn off anymore. Mentally we are drained. Who can be “on” 24/7 and have to be aware of their child’s location every single second of every day?
A mistake can cost us our child’s life.
It doesn’t affect only us. Our two girls ages 11 and 9 are also affected. My oldest cannot relax about her brothers well being. She is constantly obsessing and worrying.
She panics if she hears me ask my husband where Austin is. I’ve told her to let her daddy and I take care of Austin. This is too much for her young mind. But she lives with the same gut wrenching fear that we do.
Locks, chains, gates, fences, and our constant supervision have all failed at one point or another. We’re only human. Sometimes we’re tired and forget.
Each night as I tuck Austin in I thank God that we’ve made it through another day. That Austin is safe and warm in his bed. I hug and hold on to him and try to not let the thoughts of losing him cross my mind.
I don’t mean to make our life sound miserable and bleak. It absolutely isn’t.
There’s a lot of joy and laughter in our home. We listen to music all the time. We dance and sing. I kiss Austin’s chubby cheeks and watch my girls selflessly and compassionately love on their brother and I wonder how I got so lucky.
Eloping might be the hardest thing for us, but we’ve been given SO much. I love life. I’m blessed and thankful each and every day for this life I get to live.
We have each other, and though some days it seems we’re barely hanging on, we need each other desperately.
So we hold on to each other. No one else understands our lives.
We hold on to the hope that the eloping will one day pass.
We hold on to our faith and the knowledge that God holds Austin’s life in His hands.
We trust and hope and pray and work to protect our little boy because he is so incredibly worth all of it.