My Max has always been a little escape artist. His first word was “go” which came long before “mama,” “daddy,” or even “milk”. We would catch him trying to trying to climb over his crib rails as early as nine months in an attempt to go exploring. And once he could walk it wasn’t long before he was wandering away from us. One of the first times Max wandered away was shortly after his diagnosis of autism. We were in a large hardware store. My husband went one way to look for something and I went another way with Max. I stooped down to get an item on a lower shelf and by the time I got up Max was gone. My panic was immediate. Max had an extremely limited ability to communicate and like many young children who have autism, was oblivious to danger. My heart was in my throat when I found my husband and told him that Max had wandered away in the store. We asked the clerk if she had seen him and she had not. We ran through the entire store and finally paused near the entrance. There was Max standing on the floor pads giggling as he made the sliding doors open and close. I scooped up his little body in relief!
In the years following that first experience we would have more scares as Max would attempt to wander from our sight. I remember meeting another mom who had a boy with autism who was a lot like Max. She told me the story of the interesting way she got to meet one of her new neighbors after a move. On the evening after they had moved into their new home everyone was exhausted and went to bed with the exception of her son. Her son, unbeknownst to them, had gotten out of bed and slipped out of the house and began wandering around the neighborhood. He spied a light on in one of the neighbor’s windows and a computer. This woman’s child loved computers. Amazingly the door to this particular home was open and the boy went inside and began to play on the computer. Did I also tell you that he was in his underwear and had no shoes on his feet? The woman’s new neighbor was an elderly woman who found this young man sitting at her computer in his underwear. Now here is the other amazing part of this story. The neighbor just happened to have been a retired special education teacher and recognized that this boy had autism. She quickly ascertained that he probably belonged to the family who just moved in a few doors down. The kindly neighbor walked him home and they were greeted by a very surprised and mortified family all in their pajamas.
I am sure many parents of autistic children have their own tales of wandering episodes. In some cases these stories make the news such as the case of nine-year-old Robert Wood Jr. who was found after six days of being lost in the Virginia woods. It was viewed as a miracle by some that this severely autistic and mute little boy was still alive after so much time had passed. It is always an extremely frightening thought that your child could potentially wander away. For those parents who have a child with autism who has a tendency to wander there are things you can do to keep your child safe.