“He’s been missing for 25 minutes. I’m going to call the cops,” I yelled to my neighbors who were helping me search for Jaxson in the woods near our house. I reached for my phone, tripped over a branch, and sliced my hand on a piece of glass.
Blood dripped down my wrist as I dialed 911 for the first time in my life. My heart was exploding into a million pieces and so was my brain.
How did this happen? Where did he go?
Usually when Jax wanders or elopes, I have a general idea of where he is – I can see his shirt in between the leaves of the trees, I can hear the branches snapping under his feet, I can hear him humming or singing.
This time, nothing.
When he got home from school that afternoon, he was happy, bouncing around like a puppy dog.
“Wanna go pick some raspberries for snack, Little Buck?” I asked my boy. He snatched a bowl from the cupboard and slipped on his shoes, ready to begin our usual afternoon routine. The cool breeze felt like fall and the sun sparkled off the leaves dancing in the wind. I breathed deeply, excited to enjoy the afternoon.
Suddenly, Jax ran towards the woods. This isn’t unusual, necessarily, which is why I always have my tennis shoes on and my phone in my pocket. I’m an Autism mom; I’m prepared.
He darted towards the path and I followed by taking my shortcut so I could intercept him. Except in the 10 seconds it took for me to run the path, he disappeared.
I listened. I looked for his tracks in the mud. I hedged my bets and went around to the front of the house to check his favorite hiding spots.
I made the wrong choice. He was not in any of his usual places. I did not have my sights on him and I couldn’t hear him. I called my neighbor for help.
After 10 minutes of us hollering, the rest of our neighbors joined in the search. We had eight neighbors combing the woods and swamp calling for Jaxson.
No response. Not a peep. It was at that point that I called for police help. It took them 30 minutes to arrive.
The police car slowly approached the curb, and the cop nonchalantly asked “Did you find him?” As if he couldn’t tell by my panicked face, the swarms of people on the sidewalk calling Jax’s name, my burr-laden clothes and the blood dripping from my hand.
“No!” I yelled. “Does it look like we found him?!”
“Oh. I thought you had him. Someone called in and reported that they found him.” He sounded bored, like this was no big deal.
Neighbors, who we do not know, found Jax six blocks away from home, covered in swamp water and cockleburrs. His shoes were missing and his feet were bleeding. He had a dirty pull-up and a dirty face. Thankfully, they called the police, too and reported finding a disheveled young boy in the woods by himself.
When I walked into their house, Jaxson was sitting at their kitchen counter, his feet swinging from the bar stool, eating a banana and having a glass of milk. He was dressed in clean, dry clothes.
I saw the look they gave me when I rushed in. Bad mom. Who would let their kid play in the woods alone? Where are this boy’s shoes? How long has it been since he had a clean diaper? He’s five, why is he still wearing diapers anyway?
I started hyperventilating and crying. The policeman turned to me and said “Mistakes happen. Just watch him better next time.”
I stared at him in stunned silence.
This was not my fault.
I don’t know how I could watch him better than I already do. I don’t know how I could do more for him – to teach him the tools and techniques he needs to stay safe, a concept that does not come naturally to Jax.
“He has Autism,” I replied, hoping that would make him understand. Hoping that would make the look in their eyes change from condemnation to empathy. It didn’t. Even though society has come a long way in accepting people with disabilities most people still don’t really get it.
Last spring, when Jax first started eloping, I called my local police department twice to discuss a crisis plan for when I needed their help finding Jax. I thought I was clear – I thought they had understood that when I called for help it was serious. I clearly have more work to do.
I was reunited with Jax after searching for him in the swamp for 58 minutes. During this time, my mind wandered to the worst case scenarios. I expected to find his body in the water, or his shoe in the busy road, or to learn he got picked up by a creeper. There are so many stories in the news about kids with Autism that elope but never return home again.
Jax has no clue this is a big deal. He does not understand how much danger he was in, but he’s safe. He’s home.
Thankfully, this time the story has a happy ending. I’m a mess.