Autism : From the Inside – Chapter Fourteen

It seems autistic children can be divided into two groups – those who run away, and those who don’t.

It took us several years to discover that Ian was a runner. Perhaps because we lived in South Africa, we were lucky. Our grounds were fenced and locked in any event and, apart from that awful time when the bougainvillea hedge was hacked to shreds and our security was breached, there was never a moment when Ian could have wandered off on his own. We had an inkling perhaps – he had snuck out the gate when a delivery was being made, but I noticed him doing it and called him back – but we had no real understanding of the seriousness of it.

When we first arrived in Ireland, our new home had a low front wall and a gate which was only three feet high. This didn’t concern us initially. We even have a photograph of Ian sitting on the front pillar (above), that’s how unconcerned we were.

Ian and his brother played outdoors constantly that first glorious Irish summer (I’m not being sarcastic, it really was warm and sunny that year!) and we didn’t worry about him at all. Ian was never far off our radar; that’s just the way things were. We kept an eye on him simply because of who he was.

And then one day I was gardening and I walked around the side of the house to empty my basket into the compost bin. I was out of sight for only a moment, and I fully expected to find Ian in the garden where I had left him when I returned, but he wasn’t there. I walked right around the house, thinking he must have rounded a corner ahead of me. No, he hadn’t.  Alarm bells were beginning to ring.  He wasn’t in the field either.  Last option:  his bedroom.

No Ian. 

I burst in on my husband, startling him as he was working. 

“Ian’s gone.”

Those small words changed our entire lives.

Where we live, high on a mountainside in a deeply rural area, the roads are filled with options for the wandering child. Out the front gate, and we were faced with our first problem:  Did he go right or left?

If he went right, he could have gone down the hill towards the bridge (fast-flowing river), or up, towards the mountain (a vast expanse of tracks and open space to get lost in).

If he’d turned left out the gate, there was a lane off to the right, a potential left turn (up the mountain again); two attractive forest paths where Ian was used to going for a walk; a crossroads; and, if he hadn’t been stopped before he got to it, a busy National Road. 

Our blood ran cold. Absolutely nothing in life prepares you for the empty road and the mind-numbing horror of a missing child. A child who has the speed, agility and determination of a seven year old but absolutely zero sense of danger? Double it, at least.

Neil and I flew in opposite directions on foot. I ran to a near neighbour begging for assistance, and without hesitation she jumped into her car and roared down the lane towards the bridge. I forced myself up the hill towards the mountain.

I learned that day that fear leaves you weak and breathless, and my run up the hill became a panicky gasping walk.  If Ian was running – and there was every chance he was – he was outstripping me with every step.

This was in the days before everyone had a mobile phone, so we were all alone in our desperate search, with no way of communicating.

I heard a car behind me and I turned around, ready to ask a passing tourist if they’d seen a young lad in a blue t-shirt and shorts with bare feet running in the road … but it was my neighbour. She had found Ian a mile and a half down the lane, almost at the bridge, and still running. Her biggest concern when she’d stopped the car had been whether he would get in as he didn’t know her well; and then she became even more concerned when he did.

“Would he do that for anyone?” she asked me. It was a grim truth. Yes, Ian loved travelling by car, so yes, he would get into any car, with anyone. It didn’t matter whether he knew them or not.

The next day, the man came to put up the six-foot fence, and Neil built up the brick pillars and we had them measured for six-foot gates. We didn’t have a padlock at first, but another ‘walkabout’ changed all that. This time Ian went left out the gate instead of right, but he was seen by a neighbour, running past their house, and was quickly caught.

One day Ian carried a chair to the new gate, and spent a while looking at the chair-to-gate ratio, weighing up opportunities. Another time I watched him carry the aluminium ladder to the gate and climb it, but I think the potential fall on the other side of the gate was enough to change his mind.

Autistic, not stupid.

I tried to be brave, to let him work out the impossibility of escape for himself, but it was hard to watch him trying. Did he really want to leave? Or was he playing some private game?

Locks became a way of life for us after that. Ian’s bedroom window remains locked so he doesn’t climb out of it; the front door is locked; and the front gate is locked all the time.

All because we are desperate to keep our child safe, and because we live in fear of those few little words:

“Ian’s gone.”

Addendum to Chapter 14

Many years later, as Ian was finding his way in adult services and adjusting to a new day centre – and, of course, causing ripples because of security issues – it was suggested to me that maybe Ian had ‘grown out’ of his need to run away. Maybe Ian’s desire to escape should be ‘tested’ by giving him an opportunity to do it.

I rounded on this man with all the suppressed rage of the over-tested mother, and said “I hope you can run VERY fast, because when my son is found dead in a ditch a hundred miles from home, I’ll be coming after you.

Needless to say, it wasn’t tried.

Then Ian made his own case one day when he dodged away from his support staff on a visit to town, and gave them all the fright of their lives. He was quickly stopped, thank heavens, but the lesson was learned, once and for all.

(This Chapter links with a previous blog post, Once Upon a Time – Keeping The Autistic Child Safe)

Our lives revolve around this.

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