Many children wander and many parents have had that moment of panic in a shopping center or playground when they lose sight of them. Having a child with autism makes these times a little more frequent and a lot scarier for our family. As soon as our son, Jesse, could walk, he was wandering.
Before autism was on our radar, 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 the 50-acre farm of my husband Kerry’s parents. It didn’t matter what time of night or day it was — 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’d gotten far.
Jess has always stayed with his Ma and Pa or his Nanna’s for visits, and I’d 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. We didn’t have a diagnosis at that stage, and I’m sure they thought I was being a tad overprotective. When the wandering continued, I knew it was more than a little boy’s fearless curiosity to explore.
The scariest wandering incident we had was when we’d just moved into our new place and was Jesse 2 years old. I was at work and Jesse was at home with Dad, who was on the mower at the time. Our 2-acre property is surrounded by bush. 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’ve never been more scared in my life.
Luckily in the 12 minutes it took me to get home, Jesse had been found. It turns out Jesse and the dog had walked 700 meters behind our block in bushland, through electric fences to a neighbor’s property. The neighbor picked Jesse up and walked him back out of his place and onto the main road where Kerry’s parents spotted them. We were so lucky for so many different reasons in this situation. My heart races every time I think of that day; it’s racing now while I’m writing this.
Unfortunately, wandering is something that might have to be on your radar when you have a child with autism, even if you’re somewhere you regularly visit, like school or your local shops. Even today at 6 years old, I still have to be careful with him. Jesse knows he’s not allowed near the road at home, and for months, he wouldn’t go near it. Then out of the blue, we’ll find him halfway up our street, saying he’s following the dog, although I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around. Jesse will sometimes remind me to stop and look for cars when we’re out, and other times he’ll 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. I’d advise parents to adopt a checklist of things to tick off when at home or going out in public, especially to a new environment:
- Dress your child in bright colors or consider an ID bracelet.
- Ensure your house is child-secure — we have door handles, locks, heavy deadbolts and permanent security window screens. I always make sure everything’s secure.
- Talk to your child about dangers. I use social stories with Jesse, especially in new environments.
- Tell family, friends and schools you have a wanderer so they’re aware and alert.
- Tag-team supervising duties with your partner. Jesse’s dad and I constantly check in with each other at home and out, and we’ve developed our own sign language for communicating Jesse’s movements.
- Know your child’s triggers. Jesse loves water and animals, so if either of those two triggers are around, I have to be extremely vigilant.
- I’ve also heard small tracking devices on children might help with extreme cases.
- Most importantly, when you’ve lost your child, get help. Tell people, notify authorities and get as many eyes out there looking as possible. Sometimes we panic as parents in these situations and don’t think clearly, which is absolutely normal and understandable, but maybe not the most practical approach.
But it’s also important not to beat yourself up too much over these situations. Instead, learn from them. As parents of children with autism, we can be our own worst enemies. I’m still learning not to be so hard on myself and take mistakes as personal failure. We won’t get everything right, but that’s OK as long as we keep loving, learning and going forward for our little ones.
Jesse is definitely getting better as he gets older, but my overprotectiveness 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.
Follow this journey on Jesse’s Mum.