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.