Monthly Archives: May 2010

Elopement

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Ah, such a romantic word.  Unfortunately, our current experience with elopement is not the type of excitement anyone wants.
In the autism lexicon, elopement means that an individual has a tendency to wander from his environment.  Even using the word “wander” feels wrong; like a lazy Sunday stroll.  Our five year old son Evan’s exits are a bit more jolting than that.  Last Wednesday, Evan figured out how to work the gate latch on the backyard fence and run into the driveway.
Last Thursday, I discovered that Evan (and the dog) had left the house through the garage.  Evan was in the front yard, spinning in circles, holding a large bubble wand and wearing a backwards bike helmet.  If ABC ever does an After School Special on Autism, the image I saw could be the opening scene.
We suddenly realized that we need to make some changes fast.  A fenced yard and standard childproofing isn’t going to work anymore.  Within 24 hours, we had keyed padlocks on all of the fence gates.  Our garage doors are no longer left open (which is very difficult with other children who want to go out to ride their bikes at every opportunity).  Randy purchased keypad garage door openers in case Evan figures out how to reach the current push-button opener.  Our hope is that replacing it with a pass code will help keep him in the house.
But obviously, we can’t keep him in the house forever.  The kid is going to be outside sometimes, and we have to keep him safe when he’s out there.  He illustrated that on Monday evening.  After dinner, we were all in the driveway while the kids rode their bikes.  As is our recent habit, we set orange safety cones in a line along the end of the driveway.  As Evan nears the cones, I holler “Evan, stop!  Come back!” and he pauses, turns his bike around, and comes back toward the house.  But after a few rounds of that, he continued on his bike, as fast as he could, out into the middle of the street.  I helplessly watched as a convertible drove down the street right toward him.  I’m not sure I remember exactly what I did or said—I have flashes of remembering shouting, arm waving, and running toward him.  The convertible stopped just in time.  I continued toward him as he jumped off the bike, ran further into the street, and started a screaming fit that lasted for approximately a half hour (a reaction to our yelling), until he fell asleep fully clothed.
Since then, we’ve stepped up our security discussions even further.  We’ve been researching the possibility of getting a sign that would read something like “Careful:  Autistic Child in Area.”  I started looking for one of those little plastic neon signs shaped like a small child, in order to put into the street as a reminder to passersby.  Then I worry that having so many signs will distract drivers from actually watching the road.  I’m working on a flyer to put in mailboxes (and post on the neighborhood Yahoo group) to remind neighbors that Evan has autism so that they have our contact information and picture in case he is seen wandering.
We’ve considered fencing the driveway as well, with a motorized gate too high to climb.  We have been doing exhaustive research on surveillance cameras and alarm systems.  I briefly considered the idea of just paving the backyard so he could ride a bike back there.  We bounce ideas around—something sounds like a good idea to one of us, but seems ridiculous or impossible to the other.
Sure, we are attacking this problem behaviorally, as well—increasing the practice with ‘stop/go’ and answering when his name is called.  We know that this is the true answer—getting him to consistently keep himself safe.  But we know that we can’t trust his ability to do so yet.
So we’ll weigh nightmare-for-nightmare:  I bristle when I think of creating a fortress that traps us all in and barricades us from the outside world.  But I shudder when reminded of a friend who spent an evening with law enforcement, scent-sniffing dogs, and a helicopter overhead, all to search for her autistic son in the rows of a tree farm that borders their property.  Her son was found, fortunately, just before darkness fell.
The whole puzzle starts to seem like a metaphor for the rest of our lives.  How do we keep him in, but not too far in?  How do we keep him safe without locking out the rest of the world?  I consider the other meaning of ‘elopement’ and remember that I never eloped with my husband because it was too important to us to have our loved ones around us.  And I try not to think about the fact that, even at the age of five, that family connection isn’t attractive enough to Evan to keep him close to us.