The phone was ringing as I got back from taking Melody and Amos to school. I picked up the receiver, Mark’s voice spoke.
‘Joe’s run off from school.’
My heart rate shot up, adrenaline hitting straight away. How many times have I had this phone call? How many times has Joe run in his need to separate himself from a situation he is not able to deal with? How many times have I stood, trying to hold it all together while my brain is imagining him knocked down by a lorry, swept away in a current, lost and alone in a terrifying city. There was the time Joe ran out of school and may have been following, on foot, his motorway journey home, the time he left a school premises and the Police were called, the time he went missing for more than a hour in York, the time he vanished from a supermarket in Spain and was found walled into the toilet roll display what felt like hours later…the list goes on and on. It’s a horrible, all engulfing forced calm, a suspension of normal thought, a period of time where my body does what it needs to do, blocking out any possibility of a negative outcome. A whistling silence fills my head, I focus only on the next task.
For the next twenty minutes, frantic phone calls bounce between Mark, school, myself, mobile and land lines ringing out. They bring back the time I was summoned to a primary school to be told that if Joe left the premises, no one would follow him – it would be putting the staff in danger to follow Joe alone, and the school could not spare two members of staff. They would, instead, phone the police. The police station was miles from the school. I remember pleading; the school was on a narrow country lane with no pavements, tractors – that were almost too big for the space – regularly barrelled up and down the road at alarming speeds. Joe had a habit of curling up under things – what if he curled up under a hedge, what if the tractor with those huge tyres… I remember pleading for a change to the risk assessment and I remember being told “You’ll find that what I’m saying is perfectly legal…” I was convinced it was perfectly legal too, but was it right?
Joe is older now, but it doesn’t stop the feelings, doesn’t stop the panic that he may have run in front of a bus in his distress, that this time I won’t find him. Fortunately, today, I thought I knew where Joe would be. I learned my lesson years ago – Joe always needs a backup plan. Joe and I agree safe places wherever possible, somewhere he can go to in a time of crisis and I will know where to find him. Today I gave Joe a chance to arrive at his safe place, then went to pick him up. He seemed pleased to see me. I resisted the temptation to hurl myself at him, crossed my arms to prevent me locking him into a bear hug; just smiled and said ‘Come on then.’ We went home and drank tea – how very English.
Dealing with the fall-out is nerve wracking for me. I had given the school a ‘heads up’ on Friday that Joe was in need of support on a particular issue, and for whatever reason, the appropriate strategies though put into place, had not been carried though. This time, there was an element of acceptance that the cause of this particular situation did not lie with Joe. He was reacting to show how trapped he felt. So today, relief and complete exhaustion. But there is a fear that I live with daily – what happens when my crystal ball isn’t up to the job. What happens on the days there is no back up plan. Living with a child with autism is living with a need to always be that one step ahead, a need to always be on the ball. It’s impossible to ever relax, I’m bone-weary. That’s one of the reasons the wood has been invaluable – it’s my safe place. Perhaps, tomorrow, a trip to the trees is in order – once I have checked my crystal ball…