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On the Road Again or Tales of the Wandering Autistic Child

by Brad Ludwig

Jack Kerouac, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Willie Nelson and my son have something in common. The love of travel. Kerouac wrote about it, Hope and Crosby starred in movies about it and Willie sang about it. Alex, on the other hand, has gotten police intervention for it.

 Alex walking to the car after we played at the 'secret playground'

About twice a year, Alex decides to enjoys the combination of sunshine and a mobile video device. Without informing anyone, he will go on walkabout. Oddly enough, that’s how I met my neighbor, Dan and his miniature poodle, Jasmine.

I was folding my clothes and getting ready to do another round of laundry, when my doorbell rang. I live in a quiet neighborhood that is off of a busy road. The trees seem to magically block the traffic noise from penetrating into our space. I went to answer the door and noticed how quiet the house was. That was okay, I had set up the tent, in the backyard, the night before and Alex loves to hang out there.

I answered the door. This tall, athletic, middle-aged man was at the door, holding a white curly haired dog who seemed to enjoy being held.

“Hi, My name is Dan and this is my dog, Jasmine.” (I know I said that earlier but that intro is so burned in my brain that the two are inseparable.) “I tried to get your son to come back from the road but he was having none of it.”
He may have said something else. It was all I caught as I was sprinting towards the four lanes of traffic not but a block from my house. There he was, on the median, watching videos on my cell phone. Not a care in the world. He was about to cross the other two lanes of traffic. I shouted his name. Lazily, he turned, looked up and met my gaze. He started to walk towards me. I shouted stop and made the ASL sign for stop to visually reinforce what I’d just said. The noise of the relentless traffic that separated me from him may have made it hard for him to hear me. Thankfully, he stopped and looked down at his video. There was a break in the traffic that was just enough for me to get to him. I put my hand on his shoulder and began to tell him how dangerous this was, that he needed to tell me when he wanted to go somewhere and he needs to keep his eyes on traffic when crossing the road. He did look at me for part of my adrenaline based babbling. Another break in traffic and we were safely on the other side of the road.

I hadn't been that scared in a while. What ifs were piling up in my head, just like his adventure could have caused on this busy street. Injury, abduction or car accidents all could have come from this and it would have been my fault. I hadn't been watching him.

That’s the problem. What line do you draw with special needs children? There is a line between parent and warden that you need to walk. Someday, I’ll be gone. Between now and that day, I have to teach him independence. To be safe without me around. It’s easier when you have clear lines of communication between you and your child. Any misadventure, like this, and you are a terrible parent that doesn't care what your child does.

The first thing I did, when we got home, was sit on the couch with Alex and explain to him what he needs to do. Let me know if he wants to go somewhere. Then we can go there together. He would be initiating doing something he’d like to do and expressing that to me. Also, I can see what he’s interested in seeing and doing. I know so little about my own son. Any insight is greatly appreciated.

The second thing I did was call the Ex. That’s what we do when anything significant happens. The other parent needs to know about it. Whether it’s a break though Alex has had, or injury or wandering. We need to be aware of it. We spoke, planned and reassured each other it was going to be alright. It was, for a year.

The Ex had an adventure with Alex the week before I did. I won’t go into it. That’s her story to tell. Needless to say, this year there were tears. He was fine but we got our yearly scare.

Then mine happened two weeks ago.

Alex mowing part of the yard, for the first time. Neighbor Dan and his dog Jasmine, live in the house with the burgundy car in the background of this image.

This time, I was playing a video game, in the living room. The living room is open and the front door and back patio door are clearly visible from this place. I was standing while playing. An old TV and even older eyes will cause this to happen. There seems to be a subconscious part of my brain that keeps a running tab on the amount of noise in my house. I looked up from the screen because that part of my brain told me it had been quiet too long. I looked up and saw the front door. It was closed. I turned and saw that the screen door to the patio was wide open. I dropped the controller and ran to the back of the house shouting Alex’s name. I stopped, turned around and headed back out to the patio. As I ran by the phone I have on my kitchen counter, it was ringing. The caller ID was a number I recognized  The part of my brain that stores phone numbers recognized it as my cell number. I ran faster. Shouting Alex’s name as I ran down my driveway. I turned my head and saw Alex laying on the grass at the feet of a police officer. At least he was on the safe side of the road. Alex was giggling while the officer was holding the phone in his hand. He was hanging it up as I approached.

“Alex, are you okay?”
“Are you Dad?”
“He was laying in the middle of the road.”

That hit like a fist.

“Can I get your name?”
I gave it
“Your address?”
I gave that too
“Your son’s name?”

The thought that this is going in a report hit me as well. Documentation of crappy parenting. All because I was playing a video game. I thought I was being smart, I was in the living room between the two doors. How could this be happening?

The officer quickly jotted this info into his small notepad. He turned his head to two gentlemen, I had noticed out of the corner of my eye. “Thanks for calling it in guys.”

The officer may have said something else. I’m not sure. I got Alex to stand up. As he did so, I looked up and quickly thanked the men. They answered with the look of disgust on their faces. I became that neighbor. The one who lets their child roam the land like a feral animal. No supervision with not a care in the world where he goes. In so doing, I make my son everyone else's responsibility.

I was shaken up. I talked with Alex, once more, about letting me know where he was going. We got in the house and sat on the couch. I started to talk but the adrenaline had worn off. I did something I had never done in front of Alex. I cried. A cry that comes from frustration, anger at myself for being careless, for the what ifs and could-have-beens. The realization that Alex is almost a teenager and this is going to happen more often. It was unavoidable now. The cry sounded pitiful and almost like laughter. Alex did something he’s never done before. He rested his head against my chest and started laughing. I told him, in almost English, that it wasn't funny. He turned over and rested his head in my lap, laughed and wiped my tears away. For some reason, something clicked in my head. He was trying to make me feel better. To reassure me and stop the tears. It’s what I do for him when he’s upset. The one thing he can’t do is say soothing words to help make him laugh, so he jumped straight to the laughter. I hugged him. It didn't fix anything but he has something not all Autistics have, empathy and a desire to express it.
A new lock and cable on the fence gate closest to the patio door.

I called the Ex and told her everything. The game, the officer, the tears and Alex’s soothing. There was no judging and no recriminations, just concern for Alex’s safety. That’s one thing the Ex and I have going for us. We have no desire to cut one or the other out of Alex’s life. There is no fear of communicating things of this nature to one another because we put our heads together to find answers and create solutions to help Alex. She has some things set up for Alex to help keep him safe and I needed to do some things as well. I had to stop thinking it as jailing my son. He needs visual reminders to communicate, with me, that he wants to go somewhere. Once he does that, he is free to do so, with supervision. Just until he learns the ropes.

A new plan was forged with the help of Alex’s social worker, lead therapist and the Internet. Alex’s lead therapist, Sherry, also shared with us a page that has a whole library of things we can do to help with Alex’s wandering   All of us are working on a new plan to help him be safer, learn new skills and help increase his independence.

He will be on the road, with or without us. It’s time to stop thinking of him as a little boy and start looking at him as a young man.