The Time She Got Away

One afternoon, like many others, I walked into the kids’ school to pick them up from aftercare. As usual, I was wearing a suit and was armed with my car keys and cell phone.  I went to Tyler’s classroom and everything was normal.  Pure excitement to see mom, and lots of hugs.  We grabbed his backpack, coat, and lunchbox and headed to Savannah’s classroom.  

When we arrived, there was a substitute aftercare teacher.  I looked around the room several times, and couldn’t find Savannah. This is not unusual as she likes sitting in the reading corner, thumbing through a book, and curled up on the pillows. I called out to her and nothing. The substitute said, “Savannah wasn’t in aftercare today,” and showed me the attendance record.  She continued “Are you sure your husband didn’t pick her up?” I’M SURE! My husband hardly ever picks up the kids.  Like most parents we spilt morning and evening duties to ensure we can both work a full day. 

I ran into the hallway and found the aftercare director.  At this point I am sure I was yelling- “Savannah is missing AGAIN.”  We quickly searched the bathrooms and adjoining classrooms with no luck.  She was truly missing this time.  I became frantic.  I called my husband and through the tears told him Savannah was unaccounted for. 

At this time, I started doing the math.  School is over at 4, I got there at 5:20-she has been outside of adult supervision for at least an hour and twenty minutes.  Tyler and I continued to search classrooms, bathrooms, the playground, and nothing. 

I stood in the lobby and told the aftercare director that they better find her within five minutes or I was calling 911.  At this point my husband was in route and I could not stop crying.  I thought this was it, the time she actually got away. 

Twenty excruciating minutes past before the special education teacher located Savannah in the art room.  Apparently during transition to aftercare, Savannah fell in the wrong line and ended up in a different classroom.

In the autism community this is called eloping.  What is eloping?  It is a fancy word for wandering away.  Savannah, like most autistic kids, does not do this maliciously.  I think she just goes with the flow and ends up where she ends up. Sometimes this means she goes to the bathroom and then sees the playground on the way back.  Maybe she goes back to class, maybe she doesn’t. 

Studies show that:

  • 48% of children with autism attempt to leave a safe environment, which is two times higher than typically developing children.
  • In 2009, 2010, and 2011-91% of accidental deaths of children with autism occurred by drowning after elopement.
  • More than a third of autistic kids who elope cannot communicate their name, address or phone numbers.

These very scary statistics mean that we are aware of the danger and prepare to prevent it.  To prepare, we create safety measures within our home, like additional locks or higher locks on exterior doors.  We talk to Savannah about not “getting lost.”  We have also worked extensively with the school to ensure Savannah has adult supervision at all times and hand offs from one classroom to another are intentional and safe.  Lastly, we have recently enrolled both kids in private swim lessons to ensure they are safe around the water. 

Although your child may understand it is not safe to leave home or school without an adult, ours does not. If you see a child without an adult be aware.  Take time to assess the situation.  If they are not with an adult, act!  Maybe try to talk to the child or call 911.  Know, they are not bad kids and their parents or teachers are not bad either. They may just think differently than you or your kids. 

Source: Interactive Autism Network Research Report: Elopement and Wandering (2011)

National Autism Association, Lethal Outcomes in ASD Wandering (2012)

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