Autism and Safety
My knees literally gave out, and I sank onto the floor of the school hallway. My worst fear had been realized. My son was missing. I kept asking the woman at the other end of the phone, “What do I do?! How can I find him?” I was in full panic mode and although my mind was racing, I was coming up with nothing.
I never really worried about losing my son with autism. Despite his inability to track us in crowds, we had only had one scare that involved him going missing, and since he was not a runner, I didn’t think the wandering concerns other parents had applied to us. My son was always in a structured care environment or with a parent, so I’d never done any research and had no backup plans for this type of emergency.
So here I was, frantic and stuck in a suburb with my other child while visions of my son wandering aimlessly around the university campus flashed through my head. I called my husband who jumped in his car, racing through rush hour traffic. I called the bus company dispatch service, hoping desperately that he had gotten on the wrong bus and would be safely abroad one of them. For 20 agonizing minutes, I had no idea where my son with autism was. And it was terrifying.
In those eternal moments, his vulnerability and lack of street smarts became stark reality. I knew he would talk to anyone and follow them anywhere and there was no one there to pull him back into safety. I would never put my child in an unsafe environment, but in this moment everything, even the program and bus shuttle service setup for kids, felt unsafe.
It’s hard to let our children go out on their own. We just don’t do it much as a society anymore. But it’s even more difficult when you have a child who’s skills are sorely lacking when it comes to self-preservation. Luckily, a parent who had ridden on the program bus noticed he wasn’t there and returned to look for him. He was waiting there, upset that he was alone, but following the safety rules we had drilled into his head since he was a toddler:
- Stay where you are
- Tell an adult our phone number
- Contact us as soon as you can
And he had sent me an email with the subject line – “Help!” An email I didn’t see until I was notified that he had been found and was with a safe adult.
This experience taught me two important things: My son is much more vulnerable than I realized, and he’s picked up more skills than I thought. He did exactly the right thing – contacted us, stayed in a safe place, and talked with a safe adult. But it made me acutely aware that we need to have a more robust safety net.
My son now has a device which allows me to track and text him and vice versa. We’ve gone over a more detailed safety plan, and I make sure that I am very specific when I prep him for being on his own. Of course this incident was all due to a communication error on my part. I hadn’t been specific enough in my language when telling him where he was being picked up.
Regardless, knowing what to do before an emergency happens is key. I could have saved myself a lot of panic if I had been prepared for an emergency like this – knowing who to call and what information they would need to find him. As is so often the case when you’re parenting with autism, it’s the pre-planning that makes all the difference.
Join us on Saturday, May 14 for Autism and Safety so you can be prepared!
Behavior, Autism and How to Manage It
For the past few months, I’ve been walking on eggshells around my son, desperately seeking ways to avoid setting him off while still ensuring that he “behaves.” It’s been tough to see old techniques useless in the face of his latest developmental stage. So I was hopeful that I’d walk away with some new strategies from Monday’s Managing Challenging Behavior in Kids with Autism class.
I didn’t. Instead I walked away with a whole new way of approaching our relationship.
The speaker, Samantha Moe, started by describing different behavior types:
- Intense Brain Child
- Downstairs Brian vs. Upstairs Brain
- Little Scientist
and outlining “fire in the brain,” her way of explaining what is happening neurologically when our kids are in fight or flight mode. She then went on to describe common parenting landmines that trigger fight or flight mode. I saw how I fall into many of those. But that was just the first of eight pillars of parenting she presented:
- Avoid the hidden parenting landmines – tiggers that set your child off, amplifying anger, frustration and fighting
- Calm the fire – escalating behaviors are a sign of “fire in the brain,” where yelling or physical punishment makes things worse, not better
- Flood the brain with happy chemicals – kids grow accustomed to the chemical burst of drama and anxiety, shift their chemistry so they seek out calm and happy states
- Red light parenting – take back the reins in your household by helping your child understand that rules apply to them and listening/cooperating is required, not optional
- Discipline that motivates and energizes – traditional discipline, i.e. time-out, do not work well for children with autism. Instead their retaliation response is activated, and they become more demanding
- Defuse the emotional bomb – kids with autism have BIG emotions and tend to struggle with coping skills, tolerance and flexibility
- Develop daily routines – structured routines for morning, after-school and bedtime create a rhythm that is soothing, predictable and decreases urges to resist or negotiate
- Integrate – as you add new skills to your parenting toolbox you’ll find more support when your partner and other family members understand the approach
And as she moved through these pillars, I began to see, concretely, how what I do really matters. As Samantha said, ” Your child with autism is hyper vigilant, meaning they notice and absorb everything about you. So what you do matters, when you have a kid who is co-regulating off your mental/emotional state.”
Simply put, as I approach my child tense and awaiting a blowout, he responds to me in a state of tension and imminent meltdown. And the light bulb went on. Instead of managing my child’s behavior with yet another effective-for-a-time technique, I needed to reshape our relationship.
I have shifted from wondering “what is wrong,” into seeking out the missing link. Once that’s identified, I am ready to be the external brain that pulls things together, the bridge between logic and emotion. Using heartfelt appreciation with both my children has immediately shifted the mood of our home closer to calm. And it’s allowed me to take a breath, regroup and look for the good in my child.
In that space, we all flourish.