Every parent has, at some point, felt that awful, sickening feeling in the pit of their stomach when, out in public, they suddenly think, “where’s my child?” Losing track of your son or daughter can happen anywhere and to even the most careful parent (though I’d wager it happens to special needs parents more frequently). It might be the supermarket, it might be the park or, as I found out today, it might be an indoor play area.
I spend a fair amount of time in these places. The ones I like the most are the ones where I have the best all round view of the boys, where there are not too many nooks and crannies where they can disappear to. This also extends to my favourite spot to sit. Being in a place where I am able to keep track of the boys, particularly B, takes precedence over other considerations like cleanliness, cost and facilities, I’m afraid. My current favourite is a place my wife and I affectionately call ‘Shitholes’, which pretty much demonstrates my point. But even in Shitholes, sat in my favourite spot, I still get nervous if I lose sight of my boy for too long. You might be familiar with the feeling: you’re sat there slurping your (usually crap) coffee, or if you’re particularly confident/brave/foolhardy like me, reading a book or newspaper. Suddenly, you realise you haven’t caught sight of them for a while. The length of the time probably varies from person to person. For me, it can be anything up to ten minutes. You put down your book and start to casually glance around.When you still can’t see them, that slight sense of discomfort starts to creep in. If it gets to the stage when you’re on your feet walking around, your heart is probably racing a little and a mild sense of panic comes knocking. And then you spot them, and it’s back to the coffee.
I don’t know what we think is going to happen to them. Indoor play areas are custom-built, safe environments designed for children to enjoy themselves and for parents to have a relaxing sit down in. The apparatus are padded, netted and at safe heights. The doors are controlled by a ‘press to release’ button placed well out of the way of kids’ hands. It’s probably a safer place than your living room or garden. But then, there are always one or two out of bounds areas you wouldn’t want your kids heading to. Then there’s that slightly too high slide that you wouldn’t want your youngest going on. There are people carrying trays of hot drinks and there’s that group of rough boys tearing around sending kids flying. For us, the enticing tables of food are a worry due to B’s nut allergy. And that’s without reckoning on the far less likely but nonetheless real fear of abduction (who is that dodgy looking bloke in the corner? Has he even got a child with him?). On second thoughts, there’s plenty to worry about in places like this.
Today we were in such a place. It was part of a much larger family adventure farm. The indoor play section opened out into the cafe, and beyond that some shops, followed by the outside farm sections and eventually onto the car parks and beyond. It was fairly well laid out but even the best seats allowed only a partial view of the various climbing frames, slides and netted enclosures. While we were there, the heaven’s opened and many, many people flooded in to avoid the rain. The place was packed, making it impossible to keep an eye on your child at all times. The likelihood of your child going missing was suddenly much more likely.
But this is not a post about B going missing, not exactly anyway. B is more than capable of doing a disappearing act, believe me. He seems to lack the instinctive homing instinct that children have when we’re out and about- he doesn’t stay close if he is not made to. I often marvel at the children who cling to their parents’ sides or amble along right next to them, seemingly never straying. Neither of my boys does this, least of all B. He will run away at the first opportunity, dashing out of my clutches before I even know it. He does not have a point at which he thinks, “too far” and will simply keep going, completely oblivious to any dangers. Perhaps he feels safe and knows that we always catch up eventually, or perhaps he just doesn’t care. Since he outgrew his pushchair, we have become more reliant on B holding our hands when we go anywhere. This is a constant struggle; the boy can’t walk in a straight line, constantly wriggles and unless it’s a vice like grip, will somehow free himself. If you do hold too tight, he still struggles free, but goes tumbling and flailing when he manages to do so, usually into a passer-by. I wouldn’t say he’s uncontrollable exactly, but it takes a lot of effort to rein him in. In fact, we’re investing in a new set of reins before we go on holiday next week. I used to walk my dog without a lead, you know. The faithful little Jack Russell would never stray from my side, and responded to every command of “wait” or “stay” when we were out. If only it were so easy to instill this obedience into my boy.
Added to his carefree sense of abandon is a growing belligerence, as he becomes increasingly head strong. If I yell, “Stop! Don’t go any further! Come back”, he will reply, “I won’t” and deliberately take a step further away. He’s certainly learning to assert his own will and test the boundaries. I used this against him the other day and in an act of reverse psychology said, “Don’t come back to me!” “I will!” he declared, and back he trotted. I’m not sure how much mileage there is in this as a strategy though. Saying, “Climb a little higher up that tree” or “don’t sit on that swing, stand on it” might just back fire.
So yes, the moment of panic when you realise you can’t find your child is a very real possibility with B, but it did not happen today. It did happen though, to another parent in our party. We were on a day trip with a special needs group we are part of, though ironically it was not her autistic child that went missing, but his older sibling. We were in the packed indoor play area when it happened. I don’t know how long he had been missing for, but the woman was in tears and full panic mode by the time I saw her. Everyone rallied round, trying to find the boy, who apparently was wearing a striped top. The staff put out an announcement on the tannoy about a lost boy. That must have made it a very real, very frightening moment for the poor mother, who by now was looking utterly desperate.
While I stayed with our bags, my wife joined the search party. It was looking increasingly likely that the boy had left the indoor play and wandered out into the shopping area or farm grounds, which gave much more reason for concern. An employee asked my wife if anyone had checked the women’s toilets, which were just outside. Once inside the toilets, my wife did not find the boy, but did get quite a surprise. From one of the cubicles came a very familiar voice. It declared, “Look at my huge poo!” Then, from inside the cubicle emerged my son, with his trousers round his ankles, looking triumphant.
It turns out that in all the panic to find the missing boy, we had not noticed B slip away and have a wander out to the toilets. He had not declared this intention and there had been no warning signs. He’d just got up and gone. In the meantime, the first ‘lost’ boy had turned up (he was in there all along). There was a missing child, but we were looking for the wrong one. We should have been looking for my child. The little bugger.
We’re still trying to figure out tonight how he even knew where the toilets were. And despite being spared the awful panic of knowing our child had gone missing, we’re still reeling over all the possible ‘what-ifs?’ of the scenario. We’re also wondering how he would have managed to wipe his own arse, because he usually can’t.
Anyway, all’s well that ends well. Just another exciting day of life with an autistic son. Remind me, when does the new school term start?