In the Blink of an Eye: Autism and Wandering

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We had a little scare yesterday. I went to pick the Ninjas up from camp and found the littlest Ninja waiting outside the building by himself. He explained matter-of-factly that he was just really ready to leave, so he decided to go look for me. It didn’t even occur to him that he was doing something wrong until he saw how upset I was.

For anyone who has ever questioned why I am so hyper-vigilant with my son, this is why. Because incidents like this can happen far too easily.

I immediately brought him inside to the director of the camp and the three of us had a talk. The director was horrified, apologetic, embarrassed, and very concerned. They had let their guard down for just a second, and it happened in the blink of an eye.

It usually does. Children with Autism can be prone to wandering behavior, and that can put them at risk. Caregivers must put strict measures into place to help ensure a secure environment. Turn your back for just a moment and you could have a dangerous situation on your hands. We want to keep these precious children safe!

In the case of my young Ninja he can be impulsive, distractable, and not have a clear grasp of danger. He is also creative and wonderfully inquisitive and notices things the rest of us do not. Unfortunately that can mean that if he is busy noticing something interesting he does NOT notice if he wanders off or gets left behind. It has happened to me, and it was frightening.

I explained this about the Ninja when we first came to camp, and stated that a watchful eye was needed during transitions. I know from experience that dangerous situations can happen to even the most vigilant and nurturing of caregivers. People often assume that the Ninja functions on a certain level because he is able to be mainstreamed, and can forget that he still requires a certain level of care. He was once accidentally locked outside his school because he was behind a climbing wall and didn’t hear his teacher call the class inside at the end of recess. When he realized what happened he was left pounding on the door, crying and alone. Within a few minutes another teacher let him in, but it left him (and me) shaken.

While I am upset that these incidents occurred I am also grateful that my son escaped harm. I want to help prevent similar incidents from happening to ANY child. That is why I am talking about this. Not to shame or chastise anyone, but to help raise awareness.

When a parent tells you that a child in your care is prone to wandering, BELIEVE them.

I am still pleased with the camp and the leadership. They have been supportive and accepting of BOTH Ninjas. They’re also going to put more strict safety measures in place from now on. Still, when I stop and think about it I get chills. The adult watching the door looked away for just a second yesterday, and that’s all it took. My son slipped out in the blink of an eye.

It makes me want to sleep with one eye open from now on, just to be safe.

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Jellyfish in the Baby Pool: Protecting my child with special needs

pool fun

All parents want to protect their children. We are constantly on guard, looking for potential threats. Parenting a child with special needs often requires an extra measure of caution, because problems can hide in the most innocent of places. Where some parents see fun and merriment, we may only see danger, potential meltdowns, or sensory overload.

An experience we had many years ago on a family vacation comes to mind as an analogy. My husband and I took our two small sons to the beach and it was a lot more work than we expected, partly because our toddler and preschooler had distinctly different sensory needs at that stage. My oldest child spent most of his time avoiding the sand and crying “Dirty, dirty…” under his breath. My youngest, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of the sand. He would sit and eat it by the handfuls.

sticky fingers                      sand feast

After a while I was exhausted and decided it was time for “easy.” We headed to what I thought would be a safe haven: the baby pool at the beach club. After a few minutes of play I stepped on something squishy at the bottom of the pool. I picked it up, and to my horror realized I was holding a jellyfish. A JELLYFISH. In the BABY POOL! A man saw my reaction and said nonchalantly, “Oh yeah. my kid was playing with that. It doesn’t have any tentacles!” I was appalled. Why would anyone take a risk like that with the safety of small children? Not to mention the fact that a baby pool doesn’t need any extra organic material, if you know what I’m saying. Not wanting to take that man’s word for it that no one could get stung, I disposed of the jellyfish. It was a wake-up call to me that there was something potentially dangerous in an environment that should be protected.

As my children got older, and my youngest son was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, I realized that the world is full of “jellyfish in the baby pool,” so to speak. Other parents of children with special needs know what I am talking about. Experiences that may be perfectly safe or enjoyable for typical children can be dangerous or overwhelming for a child who is physically or neurologically different.

Dinner out as a family? Lots of ways you could get stung by jellyfish. Taking your kids with you grocery shopping? Jellyfish. Public school? Jellyfish. Amusement parks? Jellyfish. Trick or Treating? Jellyfish. Dentist appointments? Jellyfish. Enjoying the latest Disney movie at the theater? Jellyfish. Haircuts? Jellyfish. Playing outside with other children? Jellyfish. Easter egg hunts? Have mercy. (If your child can get through the waiting for the start of the hunt then you sure as heck better have some emergency eggs stashed in your pockets just in case the hunt itself doesn’t go well.)  Chuck E. Cheese? Actually, never mind that last one. I’m pretty sure all parents feel the same way about that place.

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