The “Blessing” of Autism: Absconding and Playing on the Street

peacemakerI have a six-year-old son with severe autism. My son has been a huge blessing in my life – he has taught me many lessons which have helped me be a better parent and a better person. I don’t, however, regard autism as a blessing or a gift – it is a disability because it stops him from being able to speak, use the toilet, control his behaviour or participate in daily life in the same way that other six-year-olds would. One of the many ways this disability affects his life, and ours, is in the way he has no regard for danger and no ability to foresee the possible consequences of his actions. That’s why he likes to stand on the white lines in the middle of the street and watch the cars drive up to him.

white linesWhen he was three years old he used to like climbing the fence of the rural property we were renting and visit the nearest neighbours about 400 metres (bit over 400 yards) away. Apparently their swing set was nicer than ours. The first we knew about it was when my husband answered a knock on the door one day and the neighbour was asking if we had a little boy who didn’t speak. Needless to say, I was quite verbal when I was told the story on my arrival home a couple of hours later!

Renting a house became increasingly difficult – not just because of the fences, but because of his tendency to flood the bathroom, and come out of his room in the middle of the night. We still remember the time we were woken by a loud crash at 2 a.m., and found our son walking across broken glass in the kitchen. Apparently, he had decided to unload the dishwasher by emptying the contents on the floor (hence the crash), and then blithely walked across it. Miraculously, he was unhurt. After that episode, my husband and I had to take it in turns to sleep at night.

We ended up buying an old house that we really couldn’t afford, and we will no doubt go bankrupt in, because it was the cheapest one that would fit our large family and our son’s needs. We managed to get partial funding for a fence to keep him in the yard, put locks on nearly every door, and thought we could rest easy. Which, as every autism parent knows, was a big mistake.

broken fence

This used to be a fence until my boy got to it.

First he discovered how to open gates. So we got combination padlocks to put on the ones we could lock, and tied up the gates we couldn’t lock. Not practical, but it was safe. Next he figured out how to pull apart lattice panels that were being used as fencing, so we put wire in behind them to stop him squeezing through. He started climbing over the shorter gates, so we added panels of timber and wire to increase their height. He stayed in the yard, and we thought he was safe.

Then he figured out how to unlock the front door. We added a deadbolt, and changed the security door lock to a keyed lock, and hung the key up high. I have two girls with Asperger’s who are very forgetful, so every time they went through the front door I had to stand by it to make sure it got locked again, but eventually they remembered. Our son stayed in the house and was safe.

Until the day the electricians left the front door open.

I now get PTSD every time I hear a car horn, or a screech of tyres in our street. Every. Single. Time. My son got out the door and stood on the white lines with a bedsheet over his head. And at least two cars drove straight past him. When I frantically ran out of the door, shouting his name and knowing full well that he would not respond, I saw a car pull over the side of the road. It turned out to be another autism mother who recognised an autistic child when she saw one and was kind enough to want to help. She gave me a hug when he was safely inside, which helped hugely – particularly since I was not only a nervous wreck, but also expecting an irresponsible parent lecture.

I was extremely vigilant about the door from that point on, and we had a gate put across our front driveway to keep him safe. Until he got out again.

retaining wall

This used to be a retaining wall.

This time he’d figured out how to climb the childproof fence. When I heard the car horn blaring, my heart stopped and I immediately went into high danger mode – I ran to find my son. He was standing on the white lines in the middle of the road, with an irate driver stopped about 1 metre (3 feet) in front of him, blasting his horn and yelling abuse. My husband got there before I did and retrieved our son, while I collapsed on the side of the road in a complete panic attack which shut me down for a full day.

Our little Houdini got out several more times after that, but thankfully by then my mother had moved into a granny flat on our property, and he would always go to visit her rather than play on the road. We have 1.5 metre and 1.8 metre (~5-6 feet) high pool fencing – the sort that’s safe for toddlers as they can’t climb it. My son has no problems climbing it – he just wraps his toes around the bars and goes up it like a monkey.

We added chicken wire to the top of the fence to bring it up to just over 2 metres high (6½ feet) so he couldn’t climb it. He bends the chicken wire or breaks it (it cuts his hands, but that doesn’t stop him) and then goes over the top. He will move anything that’s not nailed down (and some things that are) over to the fence to stand on if he needs to get up higher. He is incredibly strong – he has pulled apart stone retaining walls on our property, and pulled apart brick fences in our garden beds. He used to lift up a stone garden statue so he could break it and smash it – it’s that heavy that even my husband had to exert a lot of effort to shift it.

Our solution so far has been to tie bamboo screening in front of the fence. It stops him from wrapping his toes around the bars, and he doesn’t like the feel of it on his hands. So he is now pulling it apart, one strand at a time. But it’s slowing him down, and when he’s sufficiently demolished it, we’ll replace it. When he plays in our “secure” yard, we still need to monitor his whereabouts regularly – it is only a matter of time before he finds another way of getting out.


The bamboo fencing solution.

I am seriously at the point of having security cameras trained on all our fences. We’ve tried a tracker but it’s hard to keep on him, and it would go off even when he was in a safe area. Another option is to beg, borrow and steal the $29,000 AUD to get an autism assistance dog so it can alert us when my son manages to get out again. Anyone want to donate some money?

We have to be extra vigilant in public. I never take my son to a park by myself, if I also have my younger child to watch. I know that there’s no way I can catch him if he decides to run and I’m not right there by his side. So when we go to the park as a family, we take it in turns to shadow our son as he sometimes decides that the road on the other side of the park is much nicer to play on than the swings. Or perhaps the sun glistening off the lake catches his eye and he must go and investigate.

We don’t visit other families as not only does our boy not like new places but one of us has to be by his side constantly to watch him and keep him safe as well. Not exactly conducive to a relaxing visit. One of the first questions we asked of the school that he started attending this year was “How high are your fences?” as we knew he would climb them. Getting him in and out of the car means keeping a hand on him at all times so he doesn’t suddenly bolt into the carpark or traffic.

Is his autism a blessing? No, absolutely not.

~ Peacemaker

Peacemaker is a mum to six children. Three of her girls have been diagnosed with Asperger’s and one of her sons has severe autism. Their quirky family lives in Australia, where every day presents a new dietary challenge. When she’s not busy homeschooling her kids, Peacemaker can be found researching autism, or reading a relaxing autism biography.

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8 Responses to The “Blessing” of Autism: Absconding and Playing on the Street

  1. Tiffany says:

    Oh Peacemaker. I am also in your boat. I see this has been a few years ago and I was wondering if your sons absconding ever got better. My son just turned 6. We have 4 boys total ranging from 8 to 8 months and I also no longer take him anywhere alone. He is much stronger and faster than me. Thankfully he has never run into the road but we live in a rural area. He did however climb our 6 ft privacy fence and walked down to the neighbors house because he likes their backyard (it has junk in it). We couldn’t find him for almost an hour and called police and everything. He was 100 yds away but is nonverbal and we couldn’t see him. We have moved and are looking to build another fence but we have to find something he can’t climb. If I lose sight of him for even a second I panic because he can be gone in an instant as we have learned from experience.

  2. Denise says:

    Barbed wire at the top is ineffective for my boy, who sounds to have the same autistic tendencies your son does. Our boy just ignores the barbed wire and keeps on climbing over, even with multiple strands. I would suggest laser line motion sensors and mount them on the top of the fence posts about 4-6inches above the fence so that he would have to cross the beam to climb over the fence and an alarm would alert. Of course that doesn’t stop him. We are currently pricing fencing for property we are moving onto and will eventually build a new home on when finances permit it, but it has been such a headache trying to find any kind of fencing that he can’t climb. It is seeming like a 7-8 foot wooden fence with supports on the exterior will be the only secure thing for our boy(which I still think he will drag things over and pull himself over the top), but he can’t actually free climb it. But the cost of this fence is out of our budget at the time.

  3. Jennifer Power says:

    Hi Martina,

    I cannot really comprehend how you and your husband cope with your children’s issues but I am in awe of your tenacity and courage.

    The notion that your son will be “too old” for the companionship of a dog -any dog- is ridiculous. Pets, especially dogs, are vital for people of all ages and are actually encouraged for the elderly and those who live alone. Animals have an innate ability to calm humans and are the absolute epitome of loyalty. Everyone needs a dog at some point in their lives!

    How about setting up a gofundme account? You could link it to this post so you could reach more people.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. Cher says:

    YES!!!! Oh HOW well I relate. Funny I read this as earlier today I heard a car horn blow and my first thought was where is John? and in my mind I started to recall all the near deaths we had before he got to where he is today, at 22 and much better. HUGS sending you any left over super powers from my age of autism horror stage.

  5. Jason says:

    I guess the only other things would be to raise the doorknobs, and invest in security fencing. With a disuasion at the top. And a climb proof gate.

  6. Jason says:

    29k sounds excessive for a special trained dog. Is there anyone who would train your dog cheaper? I know it only takes a few thousand or less to train a sheep or cattle dog professionally. I’m trying to think what I’d do with my son in that situation.

    • Martina says:

      Thanks Jason.
      We’re looking at replacing all our fencing with tall colourbond (which will ironically enough require a council permit) as he can’t wrap his toes around it. And then planting spiky plants in front of it so he can’t use anything to stand on to get over the top as he gets taller. It requires a lot of money however, so it’s something we can’t afford right now – it’s a long term project.
      Inside the house we’ve started installing combination locks – the sort you see at doctor’s office. All our doors have multiple locks and also slide bolts way up high that he can’t reach yet.
      As for the Autism Assistance Dog – it is extremely expensive if you want the trained dog that you can take in public as it’s an Assistance Dog. If you just want a therapy dog or well trained dog, it is cheaper, but you can’t take them out in public unless it’s an area where dogs are allowed. The places that provide you with a dog will sometimes state that their dogs are placed free, but only once somebody has donated the $29,000 to cover the costs of training and raising until they’re ready to be housed. So families are “encouraged” to do fundraising to pay the fee so they can get their dog quicker. The average waiting time is 18 months to 2 years. We actually had one place turn us down because they thought our son would be too old by the time we could get one. And apparently we didn’t do enough activities where the dog would get out and about so they thought the dog would be bored. If we had a dog, we could do more activities!!!

      • Jason says:

        Sounds like a plan 🙂
        Colorbond sounds good.
        Animals are great distractions too, especially dogs. We have a little hyper dog and he really entertains the kids at times. Still going through potty training indoors though. Not good on laminate flooring. 🙁
        Our last dog went under our color bond fence. Might have to pour concrete under it to stop digging hands. After living with barbed wire fences, horses and cattle, I was thinking barbed wire at the top instead of chicken wire. It’d take a lot of years to get over that fence, but the neighbors might freak out a bit. Heavy bird netting over a yard would work. That’d be an interesting effect. I actually had netting on my ceiling in my bedroom as a kid. (Off topic, sorry). But that net would keep anyone trying to go over a fence in, and any fruit stealing birds out. Kids like that sort of stuff too.
        All the best,

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