When a Child with Autism Gets Lost

Imagine your young child wanders out of the house and gets lost. Now imagine he can’t tell anyone his name or your name or his address or phone number. It’s every parent of a child with autism’s worst nightmare.

When I saw a little boy walking alone in the middle of the street yesterday, clutching a bag of chips, I was pretty sure I was witnessing such a nightmare. Traffic was stopped and then the car in front of me turned left, probably to avoid him because he would not move to the sidewalk. And there he was in front of me.

I asked him if he needed help. I asked him to walk on the sidewalk. No response. He just kept walking at a brink pace, avoiding my overtures. He looked to be the age of my grandson, maybe six or seven, and he was clearly a child with special needs in grave danger.

Not wanting to scare him and drive him into the path of a car, I followed him at a distance and called 911. He finally moved to the sidewalk, but there were busy streets coming up and he had not paused yet when crossing any side streets. I was afraid for him. Having a nonverbal grandchild with special needs, I could easily imagine her parents frantically searching for her. And I could imagine how frightened this boy would be when he realized he was in unfamiliar surroundings.

Two policemen arrived. As soon as the first approached him and tried to talk to him, the boy began to run. It took both officers to restrain the flailing, hysterical child. When I asked if I could help, they shooed me away and forced him into one of the police cars. What happened to this child? I hoped he had been reported missing and his relieved parents were waiting for him at the police station, or that the police knew where he lived and took him home.

Plenty of folks saw this child. Maybe they tried to stop him. I asked one man tending to his yard if he knew the boy. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head no. I thought about the driver who turned left to avoid him rather than calling the police, and prayed that if my granddaughter ever were lost, that wouldn’t happen to her.

Before you condemn his parents as neglectful, consider this. If parents are honest, many have a story about losing their child at Target or a crowded place like the zoo. I lost my daughter in the Old City of Jerusalem when she was about the age of this boy. There were six adults watching three kids, but somehow everyone thought someone else was with her. Yes, she could have said her name in English, but that was all. She had no idea where we were staying and no one had cell phones back then. Happily, I spotted her walking a block ahead of our group and she was unaware of her predicament until I screamed her name. My point is, these things happen, even to neurotically cautious parents and grandparents like me.

There are a few things parents of children with autism might do to keep their children safe in the event they wander away from home or their caregivers.

1) Call the police immediately. That way, if someone finds your child the police will know who his family is.

2) If your child will tolerate wearing a necklace or bracelet, have one made with the child’s name, “non-verbal,” and a phone number.

3) If you are going to a crowded place like a zoo or amusement park, write this information in permanent marker on your child’s arm.

4) When taking a group of children on an outing that includes a child with autism, be sure you have an adult designated to be the child’s shadow. This is not a bad idea for typically developing young children as well.

I have been thinking a lot about that lost little boy and hoping he was home safe and sound shortly after the ordeal of getting him into the police car. It broke my heart. For this child, getting lost put him in grave danger. I want his family to know that I understand. I’m sure they feel terribly guilty and I hope others don’t heap blame and shame on them without knowing the circumstances. I want them to know that someone cared, and I hope that there would be someone who cared if the same thing happened to my granddaughter.

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