We’ve Got a Runner (ASD and Elopement)

“Is there a way out of that room?” I frantically asked the locker room attendant at swimming lessons.

“No. The door is locked,” she assured me.

I took a deep breath and let my guard down a bit. If the door was locked, then Jax would eventually make his way back to me. I took a minute to prepare our tools for this type of high-sensory situation: his chewie, a snack, his water bottle, and his tablet.

The private one-on-one swimming lessons usually start out great – Jax is smiling, laughing and having fun. But, eventually the echo of the pool rings in his ears, the chlorine burns his nose, the lights hum in the background. His teacher’s hands start to feel too constricting and the water lapping against his skin feels too intense.

After his 30 minute lesson, his body is on high-alert. In the locker room, he melts down. In an attempt to gain back control, he opens and shuts every.single.locker. He screeches and hums and yells. He hides in the lockers. He bites himself and me. He bangs his head against my hands or the floor.

He’s trying SO HARD. His behavior is not naughty! It’s his way of telling me he needs help.

So, I keep my patience. I put my glasses in a case so he doesn’t accidentally break them. I put my hands in between his head and the floor. I keep my voice low and calm.

But this time, none of my strategies worked.

Jax’s go-to coping strategy in high-sensory situations is to MOVE. It’s his way of trying to stay ahead of his senses, his way of trying to stay in charge. I know this about Jax, so I don’t know why I was surprised when he retreated to the dark office adjacent to the locker room.

I don’t know why I hesitated. I don’t know why I trusted the locker room attendant. I’m playing it all out in my head and there are so many things I *should’ve* done.

Turns out, the door was not locked. Jax escaped. (The “proper” term for when ASD kids run is elope.)

Free to run the halls of a high school, Jax was gone in an instant. By the time I realized that he had escaped, he had already made it up three flights of stairs, down long hallways, and was climbing on stacked tables in the lunchroom.

I approached him slowly. This was not a game. I could not chase after him, or he would think we were playing tag. I reached out to grab him, and my hand slipped off his wet skin as he darted out into the hallway again.

The only thing keeping me from panicking was that I could hear the slap of his bare feet on the tile floors and I could listen for his screeching and yelling for a clue as to which way he went.

Jax is fast. Much faster than me, unfortunately.

Eventually, I could not hear him anymore. Did he make it outside? If so, I would need police help – the school was surrounded by busy streets and a million places to hide. If he made it outside, I would not find him.

That’s when I rallied the troops.

I called my husband and told him to meet me at the school. I stopped every staff person and asked for help.

“My son is 5. He has Autism. He isn’t safe right now. If you see him, please don’t let him go outside!”

It felt strange to say those words out loud. Honestly, I felt like a failure. How did I let this happen?

Out of breath from running and from fear bordering on panic, I stopped to listen. I heard the slap of bare skin on the floor and I sobbed. He was still here. I ran towards the sound and snuck up behind Jaxson. Thankfully, I had closed the gap significantly before he noticed me.

He tried to run, but this time I had him. And I was not letting go. He bit me. Hard. But I still didn’t let go. He bit himself and tried to slam his head on the floor. I scooped him up into a bear hug and held his body so he wouldn’t hurt himself.

“It’s ok, Little Buck. I’m here. I’ll help you. You’re safe,” I whispered in his ear.

Then another class let out and the halls started filling with people. I just sat with my son, on the floor, holding his body and rocking. We got a lot of stares. A few sympathetic smiles. Most people walked around us without a glance.

No one offered to help.

I don’t know if I would have accepted any help, or what someone could have even done at that point. But, I will tell you: it’s lonely and scary down there on the floor with a kid who is self-harming.

Eventually, the meltdown began to subside.

Jax sighed as he laid down on the floor by my feet. “Mom, my body hurts. I wish I would’ve just stayed home today.” He was exhausted.

I offered his chewie and he readily accepted, but he still wasn’t able to walk down the hallway or stay safe. I was so relieved when I saw my husband coming down the hallway towards us.

Together, we helped Jax out of the school. OK, so we basically drug him out. But we did it. Safely buckled in his carseat, I felt the weight of what had just happened settled deep into my heart.

Jax is only going to get bigger. Faster. Craftier.

And the thought of not being able to keep my son safe terrifies me.

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Author: Andrea M

Oh man, what an adventure! I went into labor unexpectedly when I was 23w3d pregnant. Jaxson was born weighing 1 lb 8 oz. A tiny little peanut, but boy was he feisty. He still is! We love it now, but we probably won't when he is a teenager. I write about our journey and all other things that come with it, including a brain tumor. We look forward to "meeting" you - come hang out with us...we're pretty cool.

18 thoughts on “We’ve Got a Runner (ASD and Elopement)”

  1. You are doing everything right; everything to help Jax. it is possible he may ‘outgrow” some of this as he gains experience w/ life, begins to trust himself a bit, and doesn’t get freaked out as easy. It sucks. but you are both safe and again you showed him he can trust you to keep him safe. Breathe

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  2. How scary! Happy to see you were able to find him. I think so many people just don’t know what to do to help, so it’s easier for them to keep walking.

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    1. I think you’re right – people can be afraid of things they don’t understand. I don’t judge them. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have stopped to help before Jax!

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  3. I can interpret from your writing that you have learned so much in terms of how to cope with Jax’s needs. I realize that this doesn’t lessen the stress of what you have to endure. I really respect you for being so open about your experiences…i know your writing is helping parents with special needs children. Love you guys…we are always right here and right around the corner. Call me anytime for anything…for real!! Hugs and kisses from Melissa and Maddie.

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  4. I have had the self biting – which is hard for us parents to see. I can say my son did out grow that behavior. He is now 18 and just finished high school. He still dislikes loud noises (the starting gun for track and field – the buzzers for volleyball). One way we cope is using ear plugs to muffle the noise. Or if that isn’t allowed by him maybe a headset. We were in the same situation. Never knowing from one minute to the next if something would set him off. Still to this day thunder and lightening are our nemesis. We still don’t have it figured out. We just fly by the seat of our pants and know in time he will calm down. We are very involved in Special Olympics. Gets him out of the house, gets exercise and socialization. We are lucky in that he loves all sports. Good luck with your precious son and know you are doing well even when it doesn’t feel like it. And it’s okay after a long day to say to your spouse – your turn. Not for long but for a much needed breath of air.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story! It helps to know that we’re not the only ones trying to figure this all out. 🙂 It’s great that your son is involved in the SO – such a great organization! When Jax gets a bit older, we want to get him involved, too.

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  5. My brother is autistic and this story has a very familiar ring.
    Yes Jax will get bigger, but (with a lot of time and effort) he will also learn. He can do it and so can you. One day and one behaviour challenge at a time.
    My brother, now 32 and 6ft, will sit in a restaurant, come when called, and stay put when told. He know longer bites or bangs his head. He is also capable of so many things that would have been hard to imagine when he was five.
    Hang in there. You’re doing great.

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  6. Oh, Andrea, I love your style of writing, yet cringe with the fear of knowing what you are encountering. I have a low dose of this in my Ashlea and a dose on steroids when it comes to my job at Special O. Just know, you are never, ever alone. Remember too, we always have a spot in Special Olympics for Jax. My heart is always with you, along with my respect. Feel free to contact me anytime.

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  7. Oh’ I feel for you! Wow, I don’t know but that is hard, to go looking for your son and hoping everything is find and that you find him safe, it happened to me with my 3rd son! Big Hugs!

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