My story starts with my youngest of 3 sons, Layne, who is now 3. At 23 months, he was officially diagnosed with Autism. Living in rural southeast Georgia, our autism related resources are extremely limited. Along with being non-verbal, Layne is also a wanderer. My husband and I have 2 other children, both very active boys. Our problems began in the summer months of last year, as they were constantly in & out, forgetting to lock & sometimes even simply close the doors leading to the outside. Layne loves the outdoors, and will find a way to escape. We refer to him as “Houdini”. Our first experience with wandering was extremely frightening. One evening around 9pm, I noticed I had not seen Layne in about 3 minutes. 3 minutes is a LONG time for him to be alone. It was routine to check all doors leading to outside first, then clear the house. As I made my way to our carport door, I could instantly feel a cool breeze as my heart began to sink. The door was wide open. Layne had helped himself to an unlocked door and escaped our reality. It was dark outside, when I say dark, I mean DARK! We live est. 20 miles from the nearest “town”, and the only lights we have overlooking our yard are motion censored flood lights. We also have a pond less than 100 feet from our back door. I was frantic! Luckily, my oldest son spotted him headed towards a wooded area and quickly intervened. What a close call.
After that, we got door alarms for every exterior door, in hopes that would help. It did in some ways.
Our next wandering event happened as we were attaching the door alarms. My husband and I were both at the rear of our home making sure they were attached and worked properly, as we noticed it had been a few minutes since we had seen or heard him. Instinctively, I run to check the front door, and it was wide open! Heart failure, yet again. As I notify my husband, he runs to the back as I run to the front yard. As we both round the curve and clear the house, we spot him. Waist deep in the pond, heading out further. What a close call! We both knew in that exact moment that we HAD to do something more. Our child’s life was dependent on it. At that time, I enrolled Layne in private swimming lessons and my husband and I had a privacy fence installed to give Layne a designated play area. Less than a week after having our fence installed, we had a problem with one of the gate latches. On November 2, 2013, my husband decided to take Layne outside to play as he worked on the latch. Within fifteen minutes of being outside, Layne was missing. Franticly, my husband ran inside to let me know he was gone. After we searched our yard and pond, we called 911. Due to the rural area we live in and the lack of cellular coverage, my cell phone kept dropping the call. I had to stand in the middle of our yard to speak with emergency services while my husband searched alone. We have 8 acres on our property, 2 of which are cleared. In a 1/2 mile radius, we have over 4 ponds & 7 fields used for cultivation. After I explained that I needed to help my husband search and once the directions were confirmed for first responders, we hung up. And I stood frozen. Being a volunteer firefighter and first responder, luckily instincts kicked in for my husband. He first jumped in my car and circled the perimeter continuously, hoping and praying Layne would eventually be found. Layne does not respond verbally in any way, and at this time he was without shoes. What we both failed to notice during this time was that our 5 year old lab was missing as well. After about 12 minutes, and 3 passes around the block in the car, my husband finally made sight of Layne. He had just exited a wooded block of trees onto the public road that runs parallel to our home. Right behind him was our lab, Bo. Once he was back in my arms and checked out, I called 911 back to let them know we had found him, and that he was safe.
After that day, I knew we had to do more than just install door alarms and a fence. The following week I called our local E-911 department and had them add “notes” to our file. When my number comes through, our address, as well as directions and a description of Layne is automatically available. I also contacted the fire chief and set up a meeting to go over our neighborhood and made them aware of ALL ponds and irrigation areas around. Although my husband and I are very vigilant parents, we both know this could and will likely happen again, and my goal is to be as prepared as possible.
At age 3, Layne started going to school 2 days a week for his therapies. With the Avonte Oquendo case fresh on my mind, I knew I couldn’t stop at just preparing our home. I had to make sure the school system was prepared as well. We got Layne a GPS system to wear while he was at school, and set up a Geo Fence. The Geo Fence is set up to alert me via email and text if he breeches the safe zone. I also helped the school implement a “wandering policy”, on his behalf.
When I found your site, I was elated to see someone with the same focal points I have regarding autism. You constantly hear about therapies, new research, medications, and so forth. Very rarely do you hear of someone actually helping assist in the area of wandering, first responder training, or swim lessons. I am very pleased to share my story with you in hopes that other families do not give up, keep moving forward, and stop at no expense regarding the safety of their child. The costs of the above mentioned resources we have been able to provide for our child are not cheap. My long-term goal is that similar of yours, to provide first responder training (autism specific) to our local departments, maybe one day being state wide. In August of 2013, I launched “Team Layne” on behalf of an autism speaks walk to raise awareness and funds. In 2 short months, through the help of our local sponsors and citizens, we were able to raise and give back $4,700.00 and placed 4th in the “walk” fundraiser. Thank you for hearing our story, and I look forward to helping you with the Firefighter Wives calendar.