Autism : Worst Nightmare

Well, today it happened. The phone call I hoped I would never receive – Ian had gone missing from the centre.

They’d found the front door open.

Ian was gone.

No one knew where he was.

My blood became ice in my veins as I listened. The room around me turned black as my vision narrowed.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, nononononoooooooooooooo. My soul wailed.

I had to get to town. I had to be there. I had to look for my son.

I’m not an hysterical person. I don’t think I fall apart that easily.

This instantly crucified me.

Our worst nightmare. Ian, missing.

I folded up, and sobbed hysterically.

Ian. Our angel child. Out there, somewhere.


I walked into Neil’s office and stood there, interrupting his online lecture. I made a ‘cut’ motion across my neck. The misery on my face alarmed him. He pulled out his earbuds and looked at me.

“Ian’s missing,” was all I could say.

He told his students what had happened, and left the room.


We were in the car, my hand resting on the handbrake, about to set off. I was trying to remember to breathe. A tiny thread was holding me together. I had to be strong. I had to think.

Somehow, we had to find our son.

He could be anywhere. But we had to look. I’d stand on street corners and in city squares and shout for him at the top of my voice, in the hope that he’d come when he heard me. I’d frighten pigeons and vex strangers, and call loudly and endlessly and hopefully, for my son ……..

I had no other plan. Where do you look for someone who could be anywhere?

My phone rang again. I answered it, barely even aware of who was calling.

Ian had been located. He was safe.

I ended the call, and the thread holding me together snapped, fear and relief slamming into each other. I broke into a thousand pieces.

Two hours later, he was home, none the worse for his adventure.


Ian had walked out of the centre, and turned left. He was seen by the neighbours. But that was all they knew.

Somehow, Ian had made his way across Waterford city, and walked five kilometres to the house of my friend, Lucy.

He had walked straight in her front door. Lucy’s husband John didn’t recognise him, and had challenged him in the hallway – “Who are you?” – to which Ian had replied “Matt” (the name of their youngest son) and calmly walked upstairs to their other son Johnnie’s bedroom, where he started playing with his toys. John and Lucy have two sons with autism; Johnnie is at the same centre as Ian.

Although he might not have recognised Ian, John quickly recognised the signs of autism, and called his wife. “Lucy? We have a visitor,” he said.

Lucy walked upstairs, and saw who it was. “Hello Ian!”

I’m sure I can hear the smile in her voice as she said it. Not much phases Lucy.

She called the centre.

The centre called me.

The police could stand down. Phone calls were made to call off the searchers. Taxi drivers all over Waterford could stop scanning the streets.

And somehow, I had to breathe again.


You see, if a parent says ‘my son is a flight risk’, believe them.

Please. Believe them.

Don’t go off and make yourself a cup of tea, or take a phone call, or do whatever it was that separated Ian’s carer from him that day, and gave him the time to get up and walk out.

Just don’t.

We were so lucky. We got our son back. Unharmed. For all the busy roads he crossed in the city centre, alone and unsupervised. For all his complete lack of sense and his imperviousness to danger.

He found his way to a house he hadn’t visited in twenty years. Like he has some internal SatNav, he found his way there, where – thank God – Lucy was home.

And we got our son back.


Everything was going so well at the centre. Ian was enjoying his days, and had blossomed under the supervision of his two male carers. See my post “Autism : A Man’s Man”, and you’ll understand how perfect it all was.

So what changed?

Staff upheaval.

One of the male carers left, and was replaced by – you guessed it – a woman.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against women carers. Absolutely not. I know many of them, and some are very close friends. But for my son, who was tutored by women, home-schooled by mum, and supported for years by female SNAs, it was quite clear that he rather enjoyed a different kind of company at this stage of his life. He’s twenty-eight. He is a man, not a child any more. He doesn’t want ‘mummying’.

I was depressed enough that one man was leaving the centre. Now I have learned that the other will be leaving us as well. And when I heard this, my heart just sank, because in three years with male supervision, Ian hadn’t tried once to abscond.

Not once.

The first day with all-female staff, and Ian took off.

Now, how do we deal with that?

— And no, there aren’t male staff waiting in the wings to step in and replace the men who’ve left. There is a chronic staff shortage in any event. We’ll be lucky to get a college-leaver. No more for us the middle-aged man with a mass of life- and caring experience, or the young sportsman with caring experience and fitness on his side. Ah, gentle men, you have no idea how much you will be missed.


It takes trust to leave your child with another person. And mine has been shattered.

For now, Ian is home. While changes are made at the centre.

And while I heal.


While I heal.

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