Autism, elopement, and when it all hits too close to home

Last week I got a message from a friend that went something like this – “Hey, can’t go into detail yet, but my child eloped from school again.”


This friend, we’ll call her Renee, has a child with autism. I’ve known Renee and her family for years. Not to brag, but our two kids were the most disabled in the school when they started kindergarten the same year. They had to remodel the school a bit to include a resource room because of our two fabulous offspring.

Together, we’d have coffee, which we called cheap therapy, and discuss life, school, kids, husbands. My moving to Ireland made it harder to meet Renee for coffee, but through the magic of the internet, we’ve been able to keep our cheap therapy sessions going.

Right before Christmas, Renee sent me a message – her child had wandered away from their classroom and outside of the school. I was horrified. Anyone who deals with autism knows two things – many children with autism have a tendency to wander – also called “elopement” – and secondly, many times, these elopements of autistic children end in tragedy. Most recently in the news was the story of that boy who wandered off, whose body was found in a canal. But that’s just the most recent case. This happens more than most people realize.

See, children with autism have a tendency to wander. They also can be quite well at manipulating locks, scaling fences, sneaking out windows, whatever it takes. Hang around enough autism moms and you’ll hear stories of pushing couches against the front door to sleep on at night because no lock will keep their child in, or “I came out of the bathroom to find the front door wide open and himself running down the block in just his underwear.”

Some people are quick to judge these parents, to say “Why weren’t you doing more?”, not realizing that technically, tethering your child to your with ankle chains is probably illegal, and that sometimes, maybe twice a day, the caregiving parent has to stop and pee, or blink, or pause to ask another autism parent how they keep their child from scaling the six foot fence to get into the neighbor’s yard.

The thing is, elopement of the autistic kind does happen at school. Look up the name Avonte Oquendo – he’s the boy from Queens who wandered away from his school and wasn’t seen alive again.

These are the things that a parent with a child with an intellectual or neurological disability lay awake at night worrying about. We try so hard to keep our children safe. And then, we have to hand them over to schools and pray they will keep our children safe.

This is what is keeping my friend Renee up at night – because she’s uncertain the school can keep her child safe – not when that child has twice now, in as many months, left the school before teachers and staff noticed. And knowing Renee’s child as I do, once they do something one time, it becomes habit. Ergo, it is now a new habit of this child to try to find a way to leave the school building.

How could this happen?

Well, the obvious statement is that someone wasn’t doing their job. Because when you have a child with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities, a child who has the judgment of a two year old, it becomes someone else’s job to keep them safe.

I am absolutely horrified that my friend’s child has been put in danger not once, but twice, because people weren’t doing their job. If we were still living in Michigan, my child could have been in the care of the same people, as she and Renee’s child went through so much together when we did live there. The fact that heads have not rolled yet over this upsets me. Because this child’s life is at stake. Where the school is located, there’s ponds and highways and a busy road all within blocks of the school. The potential for a tragic outcome is high.

And yet, my friend’s supposed to still trust these people with her child?

How? How is a parent supposed to trust them after this? How are they supposed to sleep at night, and not worry during the day? If a teacher with a child with a known peanut allergic tried passing out bags of peanuts in her classroom, heads would roll because that teacher would be putting that student’s life at risk. Well, having a known runner and not keeping tabs on them at all times is the autism equivalent of the peanut allergy.

It’s not hard. The other day, I drove Maura to school. We walked to her classroom building, which has a foyer with lockers. There were multiple aides, teachers and students in there. Two adults were saying hi to Maura. Yet I still made eye contact with one and said “You have her?” and the aide said “Yes I do.” Because that’s what we have to do. That’s our job. Hell, if your dog walker lost your dog and they were picked up by Animal Control, would you keep trusting that dog walker? Hell no. So why are we parents expected to keep trusting the people who keep losing a child?

And yet, the only people who seem to be outraged by my friend Renee’s case is other parents. The school district has been less than immediate with their response and solutions.

So please, be aware. All the time, be aware. See a kid who’s acting a little differently and on their own? Check up on them. Make sure they’re okay or call the police. Go to your local school board meeting and ask, “What’s being done to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable students?” Help us out. They may not listen to one voice, but they’ll listen to one hundred.

meanwhile, check out The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration for more information about this subject