The original piece was posted in HerWord.com on May 24, 2013.
We hold his hands wherever he goes because we know that if we didn’t, he’d bolt and run. When he goes for walks in the familiar surroundings of our neighborhood, he may not be tethered or held, but he is always flanked by his brother, his teacher, and the nannies. It’s the only way we know he will be safe.
Even now that he is almost grown, it’s a behavior that has posed great difficulties for us. In the past, there have been times when he would suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, jump off the bed and run, even before we’ve had a chance to rub the sleep off our eyes. Slide bolts on doors used to do the trick before he learned how to open them. These days, we are all expert light sleepers. A little movement, a little fidget, a groan, and we all wake up. Nothing short of willful and cautious anticipation will suffice. When he is with us, we are always, always alert.
Yet, for all our precaution, there was one time when Alphonse still managed to slip away from us, unnoticed. He was barely in his teens then. One afternoon, I left him in the garage to play with his nanny. I went upstairs for a bit- I don’t exactly remember for what- but I know that I wasn’t away long. When I went down to check up on him, I found the nanny deep in conversation on her cellular phone and Alphonse nowhere in sight. That was when I noticed the open gate.
You know those movies where they transition into action scenes using very slow motion? That is exactly how I felt that day; I felt my life running on freeze frames. I screamed at the top of my lungs, grabbed the nanny’s hand, and dragged her outside to run after Alphonse. For those brief seconds when Alphonse was lost, I swear I could not breathe. My lungs seized up inside me as I felt my heart hammering in my throat.
I scanned the road quickly and within seconds, I found Alphonse in a small huddle of curious kids. He was still in our street, almost naked except for a pair of flimsy boxer shorts. He didn’t even have his slippers on. Somehow, he had taken off most of his clothes and left them by the gate and the nanny hadn’t even noticed. He stood in front of a neighbor’s sari-sari store, looking at the packets of food they had on sale. He had a small bag of chips in his hand already.
I hugged and kissed Alphonse, apologized to the store owner and paid, and led him back home. From then on, my husband and I made sure everyone in our household stayed vigilant. We made sure the doors were always locked, alarms were set, and all points of exit were secured. Whenever we went through a change of nannies, this was one lesson we never failed to repeat over and over again.
I recall a similar incident that has stayed at the back of my mind all these years. Five or six years ago, the 13-year-old son of a friend’s friend, also with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder/s), was able to leave his house in the south of the metro undetected. He was found five days after he disappeared but his adventure was simply baffling. No one knows for sure where he went, where he spent the first night, what he ate, or if he ate at all. Like many children with autism, this boy also had difficulties in communication.
What was apparent, however, based on events pieced together by his parents, was that on the second afternoon, he boarded a bus that headed farther south to Laguna and Cavite. As the bus ended its route late evening, the conductor finally noticed him. It was fortunate that the conductor was a kindly man who noticed that the boy was “different.” On the bus’ return to the city, the conductor handed him over to a friend. This friend then took the boy the next day to the local office of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). From the third to the fifth day, the child was in the custody of the DSWD but the lack of a coordinated, systematic computerized network among the different offices of the DSWD slowed the parents’ search for the son. When he was reunited with his distraught parents, he was none the worse for wear.
We were lucky, but surely, not many are. Last year in the local news, an 18-year-old man with autism wandered into a neighbor’s house and was mistaken for a burglar. When they physically accosted him, the young man, as expected, fought back. They tied him up and beat him. By the time another neighbor alerted the mother to her son’s whereabouts, he was bloodied and wounded. Had she been late, perhaps, her son would have been beaten to death, as he continued to fight those who held him down. I know that reaction only too well.
Wandering or elopement is a huge problem across the spectrum of autism. In a study published by the journal Pediatrics in October 2012, 49% of the respondents in this online survey reported that “their child with an ASD had attempted to elope at least once after age 4 years.” This is in contrast to data gathered from families with neurotypical children that reported only 11% of typically developing children wandered.
Of those missing, 24% or almost a quarter were in danger of drowning while 65% were jeopardized by pedestrian accidents. The more severe the autism, the greater was the risk of elopement. The study also called for interventions to reduce the risks of thisÂ behavior, to support families with this issue, and train professionals handling the rescue and recovery of these children.
Sadly, all these will come too late for some parents. Just this past week, three children with autism, Owen Black, 7, Mikaela Lynch, 9, and Drew Howell, 2, drowned in separate incidents after wandering away from their homes. Their families are devastated and we can only pray that they find some comfort in the love and support of those around them. In difficult moments like these, there is no blame to cast or judgment to be made, only a sad, cautious tale to be told over and over and over again.