It was a blistering hot day soon after we moved from the Bay Area to the Central Valley. The Mediterranean climate of the Bay is something I was grateful for during the 20+ years we lived in the outskirts of San Francisco. The farther away from the ocean, the less Mediterranean it becomes; no on-shore breezes from the Pacific, no morning and evening fog banks rolling in to chill the air. 

On this particularly sweltering hundred-degree day, I decided to seek air conditioning in the form of a trip to Kohl’s. I needed some tank tops stat if I was going to survive this type of summer heat. Zach and I ate a quick lunch. We braved the short drive through blazing sunshine and walked from the parking lot to the store panting like polar bears in a desert zoo.

Photo Credit: freepik

Once inside, our skin cooled quickly. I was brought back to life by the A/C, the bright summer clothing on the racks, and the squeak of our flip-flops on the shiny floor. As was our routine in public places, Zach wrapped his left hand around my right elbow. He was not prone to wandering off, as so many people with autism are, but I did not want to chance it.

We perused the boys’ clothing first where I found some cool shorts for him on sale. I also had Kohl’s cash plus my 30% off coupon, so that sweetened the deal!

Next, we looked around the home decor section; since we had just moved, I was looking to add some new items to the house. A gigantic pre-move garage sale emptied us of throw pillows and fireplace mantle decorations. But alas, nothing caught my eye. At the time, Property Brothers was a hot show on HGTV, and apparently Kohl’s wanted to capitalize on their popularity; most of their decor was based on the Jonathan and Drew Scott collection and, although nice, not my taste.

Circling back around, we cut through the women’s underwear department. I didn’t know if Zach minded walking through there or not. Was it embarrassing for him? I’ve often noticed odd looks from other women in underwear departments when Zach is accompanying me. Well, I didn’t stop to browse; on we walked.

Photo Credit: lifeforstock

I found several round racks of women’s tees and tanks. Vera Wang is nice and all, but I was not going to dole out $39.99 for a flimsy tank top. Plus, I’d need to return to women’s underwear for an appropriate garment to wear under said flimsy tank, so no thanks.

I continued searching.

“Elbow,” I instructed Zach when his grip slipped from my arm. His hand quickly reconnected to my elbow and we continued walking.

I found tanks in the junior department. The images, though, were not exactly my style. Goodbye Hello Kitty. I was not having much luck. I had an idea to check the boys department again – those boys’ work-out sleeveless tops that didn’t droop down so low might be just the thing.

Zach stopped and stooped to pick up a stray hanger on the floor. He searched for a rack to return it to, and once content with his choice, he scampered back to me and scooped his fingers around my bent arm. 

The boys department was another strike out.  I forgot that they cut boys’ shirts straight down from the armpits. They do not account for hips. And if there’s one pet peeve I have, it’s shirts that are loose around the shoulders and ultra tight at the waist or hips. Arrgghh.

I did a quick go-round of the Sephora store. In hundred degree heat however, the idea of make-up on skin was too much. Plus, the cologne in the air was nauseating.

Back over to the women’s section. How could it be so difficult to find normal, solid color tank tops for women who were not built like flagpoles?

I eventually found a decent selection on a table top display and was immersed in size-searching when I realized there was no hand on my elbow. I glanced to my right, which is usually where Zach is.  No Zach. I turned in a complete circle and saw no sign of Zach. I squatted down, thinking he was on stray-hanger duty again. No feet around. No Zach. 

I stood up on tip-toes (which doesn’t gain me much height) and saw no blond head anywhere. How could he have disappeared so fast???

My heart pounded and sweat immediately returned to drench my entire body. I called his name. Being non-speaking, he is not going to answer, but what else are you going to do?? We were somewhat near the exit, but I didn’t think he’d actually exit the store. Think think think.

Did he run to the restroom? Unlikely. Was there something I picked up somewhere…something I looked at and didn’t put back exactly right? If so, he may have bolted back to that to make sure it was “right.” But what route would he take there and back again? Would he return to me? Should I remain right where I was, hoping he’d complete his mission and return to that spot?

Photo Credit: lifeforstock

I was gasping for air. I called his name again and again. It had to be the only time I was in Kohl’s where there was simply no other person around. Should I run to the checkout and ask the employee to get a manager to lock down the doors? But what if he was outside?? I felt like my insides were lit on fire. My legs suddenly weakened, and the fluorescent overhead lights were getting VERY bright. Do not pass out, I told myself.

I was stuck somewhere in between freeze and flight. My legs did not want to move. But my brain was saying RUN! Go find him! It was a pure panic-inducing place to be.

I closed my eyes. I stood still. I thought I could somehow sense where he had gone. Intuition would help me. I wanted to vomit, but instead mustered strength to carry on. I listened. Hard. He often vocalized or hummed, and just maybe I would hear his sweet sounds.  

I did not.

Photo Credit: freepik

The Autism Society estimates that 49% of children with autism elope at least once after age 4. Of those who elope, 53% go missing long enough to cause concern. 74% of elopement occurs from a child’s home, with 29% occurring from school and 40% from stores. 

The statistics were not in my favor. But of course, in that moment I was not conscious of any statistic. I only wanted to set my eyes upon my son. I wanted to hear his vocals and feel his hand wrapped around my arm. I felt sick to my stomach. How could this happen so abruptly, so silently, that he was removed from my sight so completely? 

In that horrible moment, every bad outcome raced through my brain like a silent black and white movie in fast motion. I began to cry. I willed my pinned feet to move and my flip-flops separated from the flat carpet like stamps off their backing. I took off in the direction from which we came. I darted through clothing racks back toward Sephora. What did I touch or lift from the shelf? If I could answer that I had a chance of finding him.

Suddenly, I heard a loud SLAM. It was off to my left and caught my attention. Then, another SLAM. Then a third one. It was upon the third one that I halted and turned my eyes and ears toward the noise. That’s right, intuition, kick in!

As the fourth SLAM sounded, my eyes focused on “Fitting Rooms.” I knew in an instant what caused the slamming and where Zach was.

Photo Credit: pikisuperstar on freepik

I bolted straight for the entrance to the dressing rooms. My purse strap caught the edge of a display table and whirled me backwards; I yanked it and ran. I shouted “ZACH?!” as I tried to stop my full-speed-ahead freight-train-body before barreling into the dressing rooms. 

Zach, in the far corner of the dressing room, looked at me. I stood there breathless, taking in the sight of him. He was calm and composed, with an expression on his face that said, hey mom, what’s up…these Kohl’s employees don’t shut their doors. How dare them.

I had to hold onto the wall for balance. This time, I felt lucky the store – and the fitting rooms – were void of people. I don’t think employees or female shoppers would appreciate the door-closing efforts of a 5’5” teenage boy on a mission.

Through teary eyes, with little oxygen in my lungs, and on wobbly legs, I said, “Zach, elbow, please.” And he closed the last door, walked over to me, and put his arm through mine. I checked for feet under those dressing room doors in case I needed to make an apology to anyone, but there were no signs of women trying on clothes. Thankfully.

As we walked back through the women’s department, I glanced around for people. There were some girls heading to Sephora who were probably far enough away that they had no idea what just took place. Even if they were aware, so what? Things happen, and when autism is in the picture, you never really know what can happen at any given moment.

The episode shook me. I reflected on support group meetings I had been to where moms talked about their children eloping. I remembered friends’ stories of their kids taking off during a family gathering when no one noticed, or when they went to the bathroom and the child opened the front door and left. One story involved a long trek down a dirt road toward the ocean, and another, an open gate and a neighbor’s pool. In fact, many stories I heard personally involved kids going toward bodies of water. And in the news and on social media, especially in the summer, there was no shortage of reports of missing children with ASD, many of whom met tragic ends. reports that people with autism are 160 times more likely to drown than neurotypical peers. Another sobering statistic. Elopement is serious.

Photo Credit: freepik

Water is attractive to individuals with autism. There can be a strong fascination with water that draws them in, and from a sensory perspective, water fulfills a variety of needs. It shines, reflects, and shimmers. It can move in patterns that provide visual stimulation. The bubbles and sparkles and sounds can be alluring. There may be olfactory “perks” as well, with ocean salt, chlorine swimming pools, and earthy sand or dirt. Water can be calming…going underwater dilutes the senses. Being there can create a temporary escape from a loud, overwhelming world. 

Photo Credit: AI generated on freepik

Of course, Zach was not seeking water that day, but I surely had the thought that summer heat would provide impetus to seek out the coolness of the local creek. I made a mental note to be sure we installed the door alarms. 

Elopement in general is a major concern with autism. It is defined as the leaving a safe and supervised environment which puts the individual in potentially unsafe circumstances. It can be motivated by the desire to gain something, the need to avoid something, or the chance to experience a new feeling. Eloping can be a stress response (fight or flight), a sensory-seeking mission, and even the result of distraction. 

What I encountered in Kohl’s that day was related to pursuing a strong interest. Zach saw doors left wide open (a scene of disarray) and his affinity for closed doors led him to break away and hurriedly get his need for “order” met. 

Elopement is not about defiance. There are misunderstandings about this. Children with ASD are not meaning to misbehave when something in their environment calls to them and tells them to GO. Was Zach defying me in any way that day? No. And because of a lack of verbal language, it’s not like he could turn to me and say “Mom, I’ll be right back; I gotta go shut those silly open doors!” It’s about a response to an inner “calling,” and figuring out what calls to a child is key to preventing elopement.

Photo Credit: freepik

Did that heart-pounding, sweat-inducing episode at Kohl’s years ago prevent me from going shopping with Zach after that? To be honest, it did make me think about it, but NO, I remained determined to not become a prisoner in my home. After all, if he was going to start eloping, he’d do it from the house too. I’ve always had the philosophy that special needs were not going to stop us from living life.

For any situation encountered, there are ways to manage whatever develops. Elopement is right up there with all the scary things that could happen (to families facing autism…to anyone really!). I think it’s about planning for this possibility and preparing so you know what to do should it occur. 

As we walked toward the exit, I felt Zach’s fingers tightening on my arm. He stopped walking. 

“What is it, honey?” I asked. “Do you need the restroom?” He nodded no. I followed his lead. Wouldn’t you know, he walked us right back to the tank top table. Amidst the tanks I had unfolded were the shorts I found for him. He just stood there as if to say, Uh, Mom, my shorts? And your tank tops??

I laughed out loud. I quickly chose a couple of tanks ($7.99 thankyouverymuch) and scooped up his navy blue TekGear shorts. He was satisfied, and we walked to the cashier. Somehow, there was a line! Where had all the people been? Having a pillow fight with Jonathan and Drew’s collection?

An oven-worthy blast of heat met us as we exited. Instant sweat. I acknowledged gratitude over Zach not bolting out of the store. With the panic plus heat, I would have passed out looking for him in a parking lot.

I cranked the car’s A/C and sat there while the steering wheel cooled enough to touch it. My pulse returned to normal. I said a prayer of thanks that things came together like they did. I know it doesn’t always work out in elopement cases. I know there is agony that extends more than 5 minutes when a child is suddenly out of sight. I know there is extreme heartache and guilt and fear, and more panic than any one person should ever feel. 

I looked at that blond head in the rearview mirror. He was red-cheeked from heat but unruffled in demeanor. Calm as could be. 

“I love you, bud,” I said. He was staring out the window, but turned his head to look at me in the mirror. He nodded a subtle yes and his dimples showed. I knew the meaning. I was finally warm in the right place – the deep center of my heart.

Photo Credit: freepik

Resources for Elopement:

Article on elopement in autism

The Big Red Box

National Autism Association

Safety in the home

A Water Safety Social Story

Water and Wandering

Tracking Devices

RoadID shoe tags

Temporary tattoos

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.