Updated: Jan 16, 2022
While the details are still being sorted out, they found the little North Carolina boy with autism. The story and outcome makes me so sad. There was a time when our boy eloped a lot. He would get so focused on something and seek it out regardless of where, which meant that no caution was used during his pursuits. As a result we were the "helicopter" parents to the extreme. To be fair, we had witnessed our boy wander off too many times. And when I say "wander", I mean run. It could be to chase a squirrel, it could be that he really wanted to jump in the pool - it did not matter how many times he would sink to the bottom - the lesson was never learned. He just like the act of jumping in the water. He could see something shiny and want to explore, or alternatively, he could hear a loud noise, be scared, and run in the opposite direction. And then there was the time he wanted to find another stop sign...
Since we can remember our boy has been fascinated with signs. Any type of sign - stop signs, detour signs, no turn on red signs. If walking, he will stop to inspect these inanimate objects. He will shake them, examine them, maybe even talk to the sign as if they are real. If they are leaning, he becomes concerned. If one goes missing, he is the first to notice and panic. At times even stop lights have feelings. According to our guy, a green light is happy some times...other times he remarks that they are sad. We have no idea why. We know there is a meaning and will hopefully understand it all one day. If there is anything we have learned from our boy...there is meaning to everything he says and does. Nothing is random. So, we go with it. We live in a neighborhood that is a grid system and every block has a stop sign...so walking four blocks to the baseball field can take a while, but we try to indulge and be patient.
We were celebrating our nephew's birthday at my brother in law's. It was late summer and we were in and out of the house. With his sister and older cousin, we did not worry about Daniel as much and allowed him more freedom. And when I mean "freedom", mom and dad sat on the deck as the kids played around the corner 20 feet away in the driveway. Some time had passed and my husband thought it was quiet and walked around the corner to check on the kids. No one was there so he ventured inside to do a parent check. Sister and cousin were in the basement but no Daniel. When ask about Daniel, they replied that he didn't want to come inside. So, that is when our nightmare began.
In my platform espadrilles I began walking. I walked down the long driveway to the end of the street and began knocking on neighbors doors. No one had seen anything and I was drawn to the woods and starting calling for our boy. People heard us and began helping. I could hear our son's name being called out time and again. I kept walking and stumbled onto a pond....and I started to cry. Our boy liked to jump in water. The lesson still had not been learned. I knelt down and prayed. I felt someone embrace me. A stranger. She began to pray too. It was a horrible afternoon...awful. I walked out of the woods and onto the street, finally returning to the house after a couple of miles walking. Some of our family was there. Everyone's faces were sullen. And then I saw a state trooper's car drive up the cul de sac. He rolled down his window and our 5 year old was sitting in the front seat with a big smile. Our boy had wondered in bare feet for a mile down the windy, well traveled road. No one stopped him. He was dirty and his poor feet were scratched and worn. During his travels, he saw a play set and started to use it. The owner of the property tried to persuade Daniel to come to her. Realizing he was different, she called the police. When we asked Daniel why he went away, he responded "I wanted to see the stop sign".
Every time I hear about a child with ASD that wanders, I realize that our outcome could have very easily been different. We are fortunate that our boy can communicate better and seems to have outgrown the eloping stage. But I worry. I suppose I always will. Our boy's disability makes him vulnerable. So, if it is not running into danger, it is falling prey to some other hazard. There is a fine line - allowing him enough space to grown, yet keeping tabs on him to ensure safety. I am working on that balance just like every other parent I suppose. Now they have GPS devices for the elopers, perhaps bubble wrapping kids will be acceptable in the future. I can hope.