The fall weather was finally cool and crisp at the end of day pickup at our elementary school. I had gone to stand in my normal spot to wait for my girls and arrived early with the intent to read email and indulge in a few more solitary thoughts. The parents filed in, faces I recognized but people I didn’t know, assuming their chosen point on the parent sidewalk in their last moments alone. It was in this moment, 15 minutes prior to the release bell when my nonverbal autistic six-year-old pranced out the side exit of the school and confidently walked up to me and grabbed my hand.
To the parents around me, this was not alarming. This moment resulted in immediate panic in my soul, I asked her, “Where is your [paraprofessional] ‘para’? Where is your backpack?” I walked her quickly to the exit asking parents if they saw her exit and if anyone else came out the door. They answered but did not understand the gravity of what they had witnessed. We immediately went to the school office. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines elopement as “when someone leaves a safe area or a responsible caregiver.”
Elopement is a terrifying word for a parent of a child with autism, and even more so for parents of children who lack verbal skills.
As my mind raced through the worst scenarios, I waited to see the principal in a state of terror and righteous rage. My daughter seemed to have no care in the world and may have been proud of herself for independently finding mom after a long day at school. As the principal and teacher entered the room, I saw the same fears in their eyes and remembered tragedies have ripples—they too, almost shared the worst day. When we got home, we dealt with the rest of our day as parents do. But we held our princess much tighter than she felt necessary.
The past taught me if it isn’t written, then it didn’t happen. I wrote my statement to the school that night. I realized as I wrote my email we had a chance parents pray for, and I sought to partner for solutions. That act opened a dialog, it rebuilt our team and it gave our team a solemn reminder of how quickly elopement truly occurs.
This didn’t keep me from crying in my coffee after the next day of drop off or being early that day because of my fears. It did solidify my team’s commitment to keep all their charges safe and without the devastation imagined.
Stay safe and start a conversation with your team, with your family and with other parents.
For more information and resources. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandsafety/wandering.html
Penny Runions is a married mother of an adult daughter, twin six-year-old daughters and a new puppy. As a military veteran and prior law enforcement professional, she has a new mission as a stay-at-home mom and special needs advocate of a daughter with Autism.