Every child wander’s and every parent has had that moment of panic in a shopping centre or playground when they lose sight of their child. Having a child with autism makes these times a little more frequent and a lot more scarier. This has been more prevalent lately with multiple news stories around the world reporting autistic boys wandering off, getting lost for days and even tragically dying. As soon as Jesse could walk he was wandering. With autism not on our radar at that stage, we just figured our little man was fearless. For the first year and half of Jesse’s life we lived in a converted shed on Kerry’s parents 50 acre property. The shed that we lived in was roughly 100 metres from the main house but was surrounded by ditches, dams, hills gardens and all manner of wildlife. It didn’t matter what time of night or day, if Jesse decided he was visiting his grandparents up at the house or going for a walk with the dogs to the dam or over the ridge, he was off. None of these instances on the farm ever resulted in Jesse being hurt or in any real danger, and the dogs usually alerted us to the fact he was wandering before he had gotten far. Jess has always stayed with is Ma and Pa or his Nanna’s for visits and I would continually ring and check on him, especially if it was a sleepover. I used to ask Ma or Nanna to make sure doors were locked and furniture was blocking all exits. Remember, at that stage we didn’t have a diagnosis and I’m sure they thought I was being a tad overprotective. When the wandering continued and he was visiting Ma and Pa up the house at night, in the dark, I knew it was more than a little boys fearless curiosity to explore.
The scariest wandering incident we have had would have to be when we had just moved into our new place and was 2 years old. I was at work and Jesse was at home with dad who was on the ride on mower at the time. Our 2 acre property is surrounded by bush and was a new estate so we had no neighbours and not many people on the street at all. Kerry said, one minute he was there playing in the yard and the next he was gone and so was the dog, Randy. Kerry called his parents for help first, who must have dropped everything, jumped in their car and made it over in record speed. I still remember the fear and panic in his voice when he called me at work and told me he couldn’t find him anywhere. I knew it was bad because Kerry was almost crying, just repeating over and over “He was just there, where could he have gone”. My stomach dropped to the floor, I have never been more scared in my life. I barely had time to tell the boss what was going on before I was out the door. Luckily in the 12 minutes I took me to get home, Jesse had been found. It was only later that the real story unfolded. Kerry and his parents had been looking for him for nearly an hour before they had called me, obviously not wanting to upset me … big mistake.
It turns out Jesse had walked 700m behind our block in bushland, through electric fences to a neighbours property who had found him and the dog. The neighbour picked Jesse up and walked him back out of his place and onto the main road where Kerry’s parents spotted them whilst searching. The neighbour said he knew he must have belonged to us because we were the only ones building in the new development but could not for the life of him work out how our little man had not been electrified by the fences. We were so lucky for so many different reasons in this situation. I was furious when I found out, well actually first I literally fell to my knees in relief and then I was furious. Not at the fact that he had gone missing, I wasn’t looking to blame Kerry. I was mad because I should have been told sooner. Another pair of eyes in that kind of situation could have made a huge difference. Not only that, I questioned why emergency services or the police hadn’t been called to help. In all the panic, nobody had thought to ring and that’s what happens, fear takes over and sometimes you don’t think rationally. My heart races every time I think of that day, its racing now whilst I’m writing this. We will never know what happened but I know in my heart that Randy looked after Jesse on that adventure and they really have been best mates ever since. Don’t get me wrong, I have lost Jesse more times than I would like to admit but have always been lucky enough to find him pretty quickly. I couldn’t imagine the pain and suffering of the parents we have seen on the news lately, worrying for days and nights, fearing the worst but hoping for a miracle.
Unfortunately, wandering and not paying attention are things that has to be on your radar when you have a child with autism, regardless of the fact that it may be somewhere you regularly visit, like school or your local shops. Even today at six years of age, it’s not something I can ever get complacent with. Jesse knows he is not allowed down near the road at home and for months he wont go near it. Then out of the blue we will find him halfway up our street saying he is following the dog, although I’m pretty sure its the other way around. Our oldest dog Randy was with us before Jesse arrived, they are best friends and he always keeps a pretty close watch on his little mate. Jesse will sometimes remind me to stop and look for cars when we are out and other times he will step right in front of traffic. The only way to manage and limit the possibilities of occurrences, is to find controls that work for your child.
When he was younger, being restrained in a pram triggered sensory issues for Jess so the good old shopping trolley became my best friend. This was how I managed to get the shopping done and still keep him safely contained. Jesse still gets into the trolley but can easily get himself out so I now offer him incentives to make sure he stays with me through a shopping trip. I will reward him with a lollipop or screen time (time on my phone). I have never been one to put a child on a leash but I have never been put in a situation where I have had to resort to that. I kept a small rewards chart in my bag for about a year and that was a constant visual aid to help Jesse on track. He doesn’t need the chart as much now and we can usually talk through the rewards process together, compromise and shake on it.
It’s a little more difficult in a new environment like the park or a kids party because Jesse is so over stimulated, it’s hard for him to stay focused. In these situations, we just have to be more vigilant than ever. We are constantly talking to him and reminding him of whatever new dangers are around. I purposely like to dress Jesse in bold block colours or black, something easy to identify and Kerry and I like to tag team keeping an eye on him. Even at home, we will both always know where he is and check in with each other regularly.
Being on guard and always scanning for distractions when I’m out with Jess happens automatically now and is thoroughly exhausting. It’s probably why at the end of a big day out at a theme park or a park play date with friends, my muscles are stiff, I have a headache and I’m looking for that quiet glass of wine at home to unwind. Jesse is definitely getting better as he gets older but my over protectiveness is well and truly ingrained and will be something I probably do well into his teens, much to his and his father’s disgust, but that’s another hurdle for another time.
It’s really important to talk to your kindy, school or even family and friends about your child’s wandering habits, anybody that is supervising your child in your absence. It doesn’t matter how pedantic it makes you seem, it’s a small price to pay for your child’s safety!