We experienced the initial shock of our greatest fear on Saturday.
That was enough, the shock.
For a moment that felt like an eternity, what was supposed to be one of our most proud days was the most horrific experience we’ve had as parents.

All is well now, but that feeling is one we never want to experience again. That shock may have had time to dissipate and wear off, but to be honest I’m not sure if the guilt will ever wash away.

I lost my edge.

We had a crazy day on Saturday, with lots of family in from out of town and everyone getting ready for Allayna’s graduation ceremony and party. We were able to navigate the crazy without too much catastrophe; we even neeeearly made it out the door on time.

Nearly… It IS us, after all.

The ceremony was held on the football field at Allayna’s school, which is surrounded by a running track and closed off by fencing that had two open gates in it. Trista and I picked those gates off as we sat down, as parents of an eloper do.
As the ceremony came to a close, and everyone gathered in their family sections for pictures with their graduates, we were grouped up and cleaning up our area; I was folding up our extra lawn chairs, and Trista was taking pictures of Allayna as family members swapped in and out of the picture spot with her.
I realized we’d be up soon, and someone would take our picture, and as such I needed to prep David to transition into “picture time” mode. I set down the chair I’d folded and as I scanned our family group my knees went weak and my heart dropped into my shoes.

David wasn’t by us anymore.

In all of the shuffle of family members swapping in and out with Allayna, and me working to break down and clean up our section, David had managed to sneak away.

I’d forgotten my position.
Trista and I are ALWAYS on alert, and when one is busy the other is on. I was distracted, and he eloped – outdoors, in a crowd of about 2,000 people, now on the move as people were making their way to their cars and leaving.

I couldn’t make any words, for what felt like an eternity. It was like I was swallowing my tongue.
“WHERE’S DAVID?!” came blasting out of me and Trista spun on her heels and started to scan, thinking I’d just not seen him standing by someone.

But he was gone.

Cue the frantic.

Every family member with the ability to move quickly took off in different directions, calling for him. Allayna ran through her friends’ family sections asking if anyone had seen her brother.

Trista and I broke straight for the open gates, which lead to a forested biology/science area with marsh, and ponds, and trails, and animals… all of David’s favorite things. Both of us were absolutely terrified. Then Trista broke for the hill next to the field to get an aerial view and look for first responders, and I made my way to the corner of the fencing where there were tractors and field mowers parked, thinking maybe he’d seen the tractors and gone for a closer look.

It was like I floated. I couldn’t feel my feet carrying me. I couldn’t see anyone’s face, everything around me turned into a blur as I scanned for flapping hands, a blue polo and black shorts.
No sign of David.

I met my sister at the end of the crowd – she’d ducked and dodged her way through the mass of people, looking and calling for her nephew. No luck. As we were walking toward each other, I heard my name cut through the white noise of the crowd. Trista’s brother was yelling for me.
I made eye contact with him, and he waved me back, letting me know David had been found.

“Dad found him!”

I immediately called Trista to let her know he’d been found, and he was safe with her dad back at our spot. Understandably, she broke down sobbing the moment there was an end, and we met back at our spot, where David stood by our family, everyone smiling, relieved… and David bouncing around happily, flapping and stimming away.

I wrapped him up in my arms and started crying, telling him I love him and I’m so glad he’s okay.

“Yes, buddy. One more picture and then we’re going to the restaurant.”

Turns out, we’d sat quietly, asking David to focus on the stage that Sissy would be walking across, and pointed her out to him so he could clap for her as she was handed her diploma. Well, that focus apparently put a drive in him to put on a performance of his own.

Trista’s dad thought that might be the case, so he broke for the stage where he found our son – in his stocking feet, on the otherwise empty stage, in front of 1,000 people, dancing and flapping and humming away like he didn’t even know they were there.

Not a care in the world.

We couldn’t see the stage from behind the crowd, and it never occurred to us that he’d even considered being up there himself as well – we went straight to worst-case.

After we both took a rather large sigh of relief, and were able to process what had happened, and thank God that we weren’t on the opposite end of the statistic regarding autistic children and elopement, the amount of guilt I felt for allowing everyone to experience what happened sat on me as heavy as the sun was hot.

I don’t know if I’ll ever let that guilt go away, but I can tell you I will not lose my edge in those situations ever again.

We’ve always worked between us to stay vigilant with David because of how fast he is, and his ability to map means that he can be anywhere and know exactly how to get to where he wants to go. Because of those factors, and because you can never say never with kiddos like David, our first order of business this week is to obtain and implement the AngelSense system and utilize it, especially when we attend functions as big as this weekend was. We’ve known about the system for some time, but this weekend solidified our decision in ordering it.

If your child has a tendency to elope, we highly suggest you think about ordering AngelSense – Protecting Children to help you in similar situations; we also strongly encourage you to follow Blue Bridge Autism Training and establish a relationship with your area first responders. It was because of the work Jerry Turing does that Trista and I even knew how to respond when the panic hit, and we can’t thank him enough for it.

Stay vigilant, friends.

Love, Hurricane Heffners.

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