Autism and Wandering
Would you think that Jess would walk out a door and start walking away without telling someone? There have been stories in the news lately about the dangers of autistic children and adults wandering (aka bolting.) I touched on that issue as well as Jessica’s adventurous spirit in my post, Danger Awareness. Although I knew of her curiosity and affinity for being a busy body, I did not understand that she was at a higher risk of wandering off because of autism. It was only recently that I grasped the depth of the connection between wandering and autism. All of a sudden, some events of the past made more sense.
Our first experience of Jess wandering was so mortifying, my mother and I agreed we would never tell anyone else. The time frame was when baby brother was an infant and Jess was four. I still don’t know how it happened so fast. Jess must have RUN (bolted) down our driveway. We lived behind my parents so I called Mom and asked if she saw Jessica. When Mom got outside, Jess had already made it all the way down to Boynton Drive and was running in the road. Since Mom carried her phone outside, I was listening to the potential tragedy unfold while paralyzed holding my tiny infant. It was the most helpless feeling I have ever felt. I could hear my mom running and yelling, “Jessica stop, Jessica come back, come back Jessica.” With divine intervention, not a single car drove by while Jessica was in the road. She found her way back into the driveway without falling into the deep ditch. Mama made it down to her and took her inside. The experience was entirely traumatic. We kept our vow to not tell anyone for years.
Jessica was maybe somewhere around the age of 10 the next time we temporarily lost track of her. I am not sure that we knew she had wandered. Nothing dramatic happened, but we found her in our next door neighbors yard. What about middle school? Did Jess wander at middle school? Yes! Dr. Potts remembers, because it turned out his office was her planned destination. Chocolate! Although Jess was fine, I don’t think anyone else knew where she was for a little while.
Eleven years passed without a memorable incident. Jess had matured a lot, and had practiced and learned independent living skills. One day at home, Jess dropped her cell phone which fell underneath her bed. She got upset because she could not find it so she left home with the intention of walking to her cousin’s house (who does not live in our neighborhood.) Divine intervention again… our neighbor saw her starting to walk away by herself and asked her where she was going. Thankfully, he continued to talk to her for a while to distract her until I got to her. This incident was frightening, discouraging, and a real setback in our hopes for her independence.
After high school graduation, we got Jess a dog to be her companion. Jess had been wanting a dog for a really long time and loves, loves, loves Abby. She is a great dog, but we had adjustments to work through the first year. We did not have a fence at the time. Abby could be quite stubborn about going out to the bathroom. Instead of just peeing in the front yard, she wanted to pee about 15 times on the curb to mark her territory. One day, Jessica wanted to walk Abby just to give her some activity. They were in our small front yard and I was in the living room where I can see out the window. I was not standing and staring out the window, but just keeping an eye out. After a little while, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a woman had stepped up onto our sidewalk and there was someone with her. Wait… that’s weird, I thought, that looked like Jessica walking up the sidewalk with the woman. While I had not been looking, Abby broke away from Jessica to chase another dog. In a panic, Jessica had rushed after her. They both ended up in the brush behind a neighborhood house. Thankfully, a kind woman out for a walk was aware that she had special needs walked her back home. How had all that transpired in the few minutes I looked away?
That last incident was in 2010. Thankfully, nothing else like that has happened since then. But why did we have more than one incident at all? There were 18 years between the first and the last incident. Each time seemed like an isolated unlikely incident.
According to The Huffington Post, research published in 2012 shows that about half of autistic children are prone to wandering. That same study found that half of parents with autistic children had never received advice or guidance from a professional on how to cope with wandering. Advocacy groups are now making it a priority to increase awareness of wandering.
Thinking back to the pressure we were under to approve of Jess wandering the halls of school by herself reminds me of how defensive we felt every time we disagreed with that idea. Now, I have no regrets. Were we wrong to deny her the opportunity to be independent and walk to places by herself? I think not.