What Happens When an Autistic Boy Goes Missing…

A friend and fellow blogger posted on her site the other day about her son being reported missing at school (http://scottishmum.com/2013/03/how-long-after-a-child-is-missing-should-schools-contact-parents-and-how/) made me think about what things are like for Matthew and Daniel away from the home where they’re unsure of their surroundings, and have no adult around to help them. What happens when they go missing.

Thankfully to date, neither of the boys have gone missing from school before. The playground at lunchtime is meant to be well policed by school staff, but often if you go by, they will be in small groups having a gossip. Have a look at the school gate, and you’ll see a hoard of kids hanging about there at lunchtime without an adult in sight. It would be so easy for any child with mischief in mind to slip out of the school without being noticed. Worryingly, when Jane was taking Matthew back to school at lunchtime (he comes home for lunch 3 days a week) to find Daniel at the gate, no supervision. Thankfully, his chums were there, and they were playing. But Daniel is easily distracted, having a short attention span. He could easily have seen something that interested him, and he’d have been away. I also wonder how long it would have been until we’d found out he was missing if that had happened?

Being lost is a scary prospect for most children, but a child with an ASD, it can be terrifying. Both Matthew and Daniel don’t see the world as we do, and are greatly reassured by familiar surroundings, with someone they trust on hand to help them find their way to their destination. The world would be full of sensory stimulation to assault their special brains. Their one-track minds (when they see something that takes their interest, it becomes their sole focus) mean that their road safety skills are non-existent. Neither would see any danger in trying to get across a road if it was between them and an interesting object. We remind them daily of what they need to do before and during crossing a road, but what is learned today can be forgotten by tomorrow. Its things like this that could turn being missing for even 15 minutes a fatal event.

Two incidents of the boys going missing neatly sum up Matthew and Daniel’s thinking that their autism results in. Last summer, Matthew and Daniel were out in the garden when a classmate of Matthew’s asked if they wanted to play with another of their friends. We were reluctant, but they were only going down the street to this boy’s house, so we let them go. 20 minutes later, this boy comes round to ask if Matthew and Daniel would like to play. Clearly, they’d not gone where they’d intended. Jane and I knocked on a few doors, walked round the nearby streets to no avail. When we got home after another 20 minutes, the boys were in the living room, completely unaware of the fright they’d given us. To them, what they’d done wasn’t a problem. They were completely unaware that they’d put themselves at risk. Matthew has shown willingness to go off with much older children he doesn’t know. They are so vulnerable, that they can’t recognise when a situation could be dangerous. Needless to say, we keep a much closer eye on them when they go out to play. Thankfully, they’re happy playing around the house and garden. I’ll regularly take them out to the local parks, and for walks round Portlethen, which we all enjoy.

The other incident was equally scary – both for Jane & I, and for Matthew. Jane was at the Doctors at school out time, so I collected him. I told him mummy was at the Doctor’s, which is just the other side of the railway line from the school. As we walked home, Matthew ran ahead – and promptly became confused with his surroundings, and became lost. I’d continued home, hoping he’d kept going and managed to get home. He hadn’t. I turned back to go and look for him, and encountered Jane – with Matthew. He’d gotten lost, and became distressed and panicked. He is afraid of approaching adults he doesn’t know, so couldn’t ask for help. He ran back to the school, but no one was in the playground. The worrying thing about the school is its proximity the railway line. Portlethen’s station is small, and its easy to get onto the track. As he knew mummy was at the doctors, he might have tried crossing the line. Thankfully, he went onto the road outside the school where Jane intercepted him en route back from the doctors.

It gave Matthew a big scare. Jane talked to him, and he was very clingy to her, repeating, “I’m sorry mummy” over and over again. I’m not sure he comprehended exactly in how much danger he was in. But the tale about about when a school reports a child is missing assumes a reasonably street-savvy child goes missing. Even then, a child is at risk if they’re not in a familiar surrounding with familiar people. With a special needs child, they are instantly vulnerable away form familiar ground. They often lack the skills to take the right action, or to work out that someone being friendly to them may not have friendly intentions. Schools needs to remember the vulnerability of these children and take action – sooner rather than later.

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