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

22 Jan

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




3 Responses to “Autism, elopement, and when it all hits too close to home”

  1. bridalbuzz January 22, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

    This is a nightmare I share. Our six year old son (who has fragile x and autism) made it out of his school twice at the beginning of this year. The second time they weren’t even aware he was gone. It happened to be the time when my Au pair picks him up from school and she saw him standing alone on the side walk when she pulled up to the school. And somehow I was seen as completely unreasonable when I asked that a safety plan be put in place that requires him to have hand to hand adult contact at all times while outside the classroom or an adult posted at the playground gate that remains there while my child is outside. I do not have the only eloper at this school and it’s a school that aggressively pursued inclusion to the point where every classroom has both a regular and special education lead teacher. I can’t even imagine the kind of response someone would receive in an environment that’s more mainstream if I had as much difficulty as I did in my supposedly supportive environment!! I almost pulled him right then from the school but that same week the autism classroom at our neighborhood school lost a five year old who made it across one of the busier streets in Denver. I don’t know who to trust, Elijah has sensory issues and won’t wear any sort of tracker. So instead I do as you say, I worry and lose sleep and have to trust that the hand to hand contact plan I fought so hard for is actually being used, while a huge stomach-wrenching part of me knows if they were paying anything close to the attention they are supposed to be then it would be impossible for him to so frequently have wet through a diaper to the point where the thing explodes and he’s wearing wet pants – which happens at least three times a week. There has to be a better way, I only hope I found out what it is before something happens to my smiling, happy, hug loving little boy.

  2. eisnikki January 22, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

    …..and I logged in with the wrong email address on that last comment, sheesh. Oh well, I’m not retuning the whole thing, just wanted to use the right one so you knew I’m an existing stalker not a new one lol

  3. saracvt January 22, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    God, this brings up some bad memories. See, Eldest is autistic. Her treatment now is highly successful, but she STILL has a tendency to just get up & wander out of her classroom. But before the wonder treatment, she’d run down the cul-de-sac in her underwear. And believe me, I heard about it from the neighbors. But the most horrific, and the one that still gives me nightmares, is when she was four, & I was taking her to the park. She ran into the road, & three cars stopped for her. If the drivers hadn’t been alert, she might not currently be 13, & we’d never have gotten to see the library-aide-field-trip-leading girl within.

    Youngest, on the other hand, just last summer when she was SUPPOSED to be visiting my parents, decided to walk home by herself–a distance of over 300 miles. I didn’t know anything about this until a local sheriff called to say he’d found walking alone, barefoot, on a deserted road. By this time, she’d been gone for approximately four hours. I was & still am horrified that my parents DIDN’T KNOW she was gone until I called them. They don’t get to have my kids without me there again. I want the girls to see their grandparents, but not at the expense of their safety.

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