This is a guest post by Lori McIlwain who has a son with autism.
If I could have made Connor a miniature replica of every highway exit sign in the state of North Carolina, I would have. He knows them all by heart. Realistically, I could only create a few particular favorites that he often begged to see. Driving him to those exits down Interstate 40 became the equivalent of going out for ice cream, and our days were filled with drawing one exit sign after another as he nudged green crayons into our hands asking, “Exit 93A?” “Exit 289?” “Exit 2B?” Arts and crafts were never my thing, but for two weeks leading up to his 8th birthday, I committed to a daily ritual of wood glue, green paint and rectangular slats. I remember the day he opened them — his smile grew wide and steady as they peeked out from under the tissue paper. To him, those exit signs were the best gift ever. To us, a way to keep him safe.
It wasn’t long before when I received a call from a woman explaining that our seven-year-old son was sitting in a police cruiser after being found by a random stranger. Connor had wandered from the school grounds, and although no one could say how long he was gone, it was clear he made his way through some woods and onto a side street leading to a four-lane road. A local man was on his way to the post office when he spotted him. He put Connor in his car and called the police.
Connor told the officer he was “going on an adventure to touch his favorite exit sign.” He had wandered multiple times before from multiple schools, but this was the worst yet. Although we had become the squeaky-wheel parents that insisted on close supervision and tightened security, it obviously wasn’t enough.
The replicas did what we hoped they would. In fact, the more we fueled his obsession, the more it became old hat. Even so, we weren’t about to let our guard down. After that incident, we were able to enroll Connor into our county’s Project Lifesaver program, a tracking system typically facilitated by a local sheriff’s office. We also fought for a 1:1 aide and became even more “squeaky” about school security breaches, such as fence gaps and open gates. We looked at it as a wakeup call and felt lucky to have the resources we needed.
Around that same time, another little boy went missing in Michigan. Same age. Same diagnosis. He was found dead.
I’ve never had to know what it’s like to have my child still missing after the sun goes down, or hear unbearable news that my child is gone. I don’t believe it’s right that some children have access to safety resources, and others not. To me, it wasn’t okay that an AMBER Alert could have helped that young boy, but was never issued because he wasn’t abducted. Our children are dying alone, many without a voice to call for help. Every child should be given the resources to stay alive.
There will come a day when we won’t be here to make sure Connor’s safe. Should he ever have to rely on someone else after we’re gone, my hope is that person, and the general public, has a better understanding of this issue. Until that time, we’ll continue to help Connor learn ways to keep himself safe. Who knows, maybe one day he’ll find some dusty miniature signs in the attic and ask, “Mom, what in the world are these?” “Oh, just some old exit strategy.”
A new website, AWAARE.org, has been developed to address autism-related wandering. AWAARE is a collaborative project of AutismOne, Autism Speaks, Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation, HollyRod Foundation, National Autism Association and Talk About Curing Autism.