The thought of my son getting lost is often the thing I dread the most. Well, it happened!
On Wednesday evening, my little boy was playing in the garden. Somehow he managed to get out of the enclosed garden area and for a horrendous hour, I had absolutely no idea where he was. This was the most terrifying experience I have ever had. The fear of not knowing where he was, knowing that he wouldn’t respond if called and worse of all, that he was entirely vulnerable. It has taken days for the shakes to subside, and thinking of it still reduces me to tears.
I am extremely safety conscious with Mark, given that he has no awareness of danger. We have ensured that our entire garden is fenced off, the surrounding field has a further fence around it, and the driveway is also protected by electronic gates.
At around 7pm on Wednesday, Mark was playing in the garden whilst I was preparing his bath. When I called him in, he responded with a very clear ‘no!’. I went in to change the baby’s nappy and five or so minutes later, sent my 5 year old daughter to call him in. My daughter ran back into the house after checking the garden, shouting ‘mummy, Mark’s not in the garden’. She was starting to cry, so I knew that she wasn’t tricking me (as she likes to do!). I immediately ran into the garden, 10 week old baby in my arms and went to the spot where he had been just moments before. Despite all of the gates being locked, Mark was nowhere to be found. On one side of the garden, the fencing is extremely high, and on the other side, slightly lower. I assumed he must have climbed over this (not that he has ever climbed over a fence in his life!). This fence backed on to the neighbour’s field.
I was utterly panic stricken.
My mum had just arrived and I immediately passed her the baby and fled. I had no shoes on, no phone and had left the bath running. All I could think of was getting to my son and ensuring that he was safe.
I headed immediately to the neighbour’s house, which is no quick feat (it takes at least two minutes to get to the house because there is a field in between). The neighbours said they had seen a little boy coming across the field and thought nothing of it. By this point I was in tears, as they detailed that he had headed across the field, to the bottom of their driveway which leads straight on to the road.
I immediately headed for the road and had absolutely no idea which way to go – there are so many possible directions he could have taken, left, right, the adjoining road or either of two footpaths, not to mention the driveways along the road. Fortunately, my neighbour followed shortly after in his car and told me to get in so we could drive along the road. His kindness meant that I could cover more distance as I hadn’t even thought to get in my car, or to ask for his help!
A car passed with two neighbours in it, we flagged them down and instantly the two joined in the search. All those we met along the road that lived close by, were told of the situation and joined in looking for him. By this point my panic was increasing. After about ten minutes, there were 12 of us all looking for Mark. My neighbour gave me his phone to call the police. I can only assume that it took me so long to think of the police, because of the utter panic I was in. When speaking with the police, it really brought home, just how vulnerable my son is. He is a 9 year old boy, who looks like a typically developing child, but has limited communicative abilities and no awareness of danger (cars, deep water – despite not being able to swim, strangers, getting lost).
The police asked what he was wearing and whether he had a phone on him. I told them as much about him as I could, with specific descriptions of his clothing and appearance. I then advised them that I would not return home but wanted to continue to search for him. I left the neighbour’s car, with his phone and took a footpath that I often walk on with Mark, leading into woods. I called his name repetitively, despite the fact that I knew he wouldn’t respond when called. I realised at this point that despite having the neighbour’s phone, I didn’t have his pin code, so had no way of contacting home to see if he had been found.
After another 30 minutes or so, I met with one of the search party in the woods, and they gave me their phone. I called home and was advised that Mark had been found safe and well! I am sure I don’t have to try to explain the feeling of relief!
Where had he been…
Mark had left the neighbour’s driveway, and headed up the road. He had walked along for a few minutes, before spotting a house which boasted one of his favourite things – a doorbell. He went up to the house and was repetitively ringing the doorbell (Mark loves the ‘ding dong’ sound). The lady that answered later detailed that he continued to ring the bell despite her answering the door, and she didn’t understand why. She explained that she thought he couldn’t speak English as he would not respond to her questions. She said that she knew nothing about autism. Mark had entered her house and had been going through her drawers and cupboards and the man of the house had shouted at him, telling him to leave things alone – this had absolutely no effect, as expected. She telephoned her neighbour and when she tried to communicate with Mark, she said that she realised he was probably autistic. The lady managed to find out his name, by asking him. He has been taught to respond to this question. She then asked if he wanted to go home, to which he responded ‘yes please’.
All other questions that he hasn’t been specifically taught the answer to, were met with him repeating the question. The lady asked him ‘where do you live? Where is your house? Where are your mum and dad?’ etc. and he merely repeated what she said.
Fortunately one of the ladies walked down the driveway and onto the road to see if anyone else was there, and at that moment, thank goodness, my niece was passing whilst looking for Mark. Upon recalling this story, the lady became very tearful when she detailed how Mark’s face ‘lit up’ upon seeing my niece. I am hoping this means he was scared and will think twice about doing this again, but somehow I don’t think so and won’t be taking that chance.
When I got back home and saw him, quite oblivious to the fact that he had just made me go through the worst hour of my life, I held him close and cried. Mark is not one for prolonged cuddles and told me ‘I’ve finished’ whilst pushing me away after a few seconds.
A lesson learnt…
Whilst I hope this never happens again, I am trying to pull together a list of all of the things that could have been done better. Fortunately things were ok and Mark was completely unharmed, but I realise that my blind panic was not helpful to him at all. I have heard the most tragic stories about those with autism who have managed to evade their carers and whilst I am thankful that the ending to our story is a happy one, it could so easily have been different.
Here are some things to consider. However unlikely it is that your child will get away from you (impossible I thought) be prepared for every eventuality.
1) If you let your child in a specific area unsupervised, ensure that you regularly check the area to check that it is still secure. Having said this, your child will change and may develop new behaviours e.g. fence climbing.
2) If your child is verbal, teach them to respond to questions about their address. Mark has been taught to respond to questions such as ‘what’s your name?’ and ‘what are you called?’ etc. Fortunately this episode demonstrated that his responding has generalised to complete strangers. We are now teaching him to respond to all variations of the question ‘where do you live?’.
3) Teach your child to respond when called. This is easier for verbal children, however, those that are non-verbal could be taught to blow a whistle or respond in some other way (just an idea).
4) Ensure that your child has something on them that makes their name and address identifiable in the event that they go missing. If they will wear a bracelet / necklace use an identity bracelet. However, be aware that not many people will think to look. Perhaps an item of clothing that details clearly their parent’s phone number and their disability would be a consideration, when they are playing outside.
5) Look into the option of having a tracker fitted to a bracelet / necklace, so you are able to track them. This is something I am trying to look into at the moment!
6) Have a plan of action that you will follow if your child goes missing. Ensure that you have a phone with you (and preferably that you are wearing shoes! My feet are still sore!).
7) One of my neighbours highlighted the importance of staking a person at every possible road exit point from our surroundings. Think about the possible distance that can have been covered in the time that has elapsed and get to these exit points as quickly as possible, keeping a lookout, and then head inwards. This also makes it difficult for anyone that may have picked your child up, to get out of the surroundings with them in the car.
8) Ask someone to knock on the neighbour’s houses. I am very fortunate that the owner’s of the house that Mark went to, did not let him go back out onto the road when he wanted to. I am also fortunate that despite him behaving very strangely to them (armed with his favourite coat hanger for twiddling!), they still opened the door and kept him safe.
9) Be prepared to deal with people that know absolutely nothing about your child’s disability. In this instance, this included those that found him, as well as the police. The neighbours believed Mark was foreign, and then they thought he was being naughty and pretending he couldn’t understand them. As for the police, they didn’t understand why he didn’t have a phone (it would not be a great conversation even if he knew how to answer one) and offered to have stern words with him for going out without telling me! Given Mark’s level of understanding this is quite ridiculous! The intentions of all involved were great, but it is important to be aware that many people will have no idea of what autism is.
These are just a few things that have sprung to mind. My dad has installed higher fences, and I am just about letting Mark back into the garden after a few days of keeping him as close to me as possible! If anyone thinks of any other considerations, please let me know. I thought this would never happen to me, as I pay so much attention to keeping him safe – it just shows that we need to be prepared for every eventuality, no matter how unlikely it may seem.