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.