We have worked really hard at trying to integrate our six year old daughter who is diagnosed with Infantile Autism Spectrum Disorder into the community. We have come a long way, but have an even longer way to go.
One of the things I have done to help with this is to take her to the local public library for brief visits. In the beginning, she would run up and down the stacks… I can only recollect once that a staff member got coy with us. However, I believe it was because my older daughter was trying to catch her for me (which could have appeared to be horse play).
Like I said, we have come a long way! Today started off like a typical day for us… We returned our books and movies, and then said ‘Hi’ to the front desk manager as we headed for the computers in the children’s section. My daughter loves to play Freddie the Fish while I quickly get my reserves (less than 30 seconds). I usually put my stuff on reserve so I don’t have a need to go into the stacks. I then take them over to the computer checkout near the table she is sitting at. This gives her a little autonomy while I am able to get my task done too.
But, today I broke routine… I decided to get a few books that weren’t on reserve. My daughter was sitting quietly on the computer engrossed in her game just like she had in recent visits… I knew I had about 10 minutes before she lost her attention span (or so I thought.) I asked a librarian to help me find a book on pioneers for my other daughter. I was in a stack just 5 aisles over for less than 20 seconds … and she was gone! I even took a double take!! I spun around in a circle and she was no where in sight.
In an instant I decided to go immediately to the front desk, “I can’t find my autistic daughter…. She is 6 years old. I am going to the parking lot to look.” I can’t remember the librarian’s exact response but I am sure it was something like, “I know who she is… Go, we will look inside.” And then I was bolting out the door!!
I ran to the jeep and scanned the entire lot… she wasn’t there. I was relieved for a split second, and then more fear filled me. As I ran back towards the library I saw a staff member at the door gesturing to me as if to ask if I found her. When I shook my head ‘no’ she hurried away!
As I reentered the building, I was amazed; every staff member had been notified and they were looking for her in the bathrooms, meeting rooms, stacks, under tables and even around the perimeter of the building. The manager told me to stay by the front door to be sure she didn’t get past us… I told her immediately, “She has on a red Hanna Montana shirt with a purple skirt and has short brown hair”. The next thing I knew I heard my words echoed by 5 people… “She has on a red shirt with a purple skirt and has short brown hair.”
Time was suspended as I watched the staff work together! I found myself thinking about that GPS Locator I got in the mail yesterday… it was still sitting on the charger. (Mental note to self: get that up and running ASAP.) Then my mind wandered to the worse scenario… so I told the manager I was going to go look in the parking lot again. She told me it was best if I stayed where I was at the entrance (the only way in or out of the building).
I took a few deep breaths to center myself and agreed. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw my daughter walking beside a staff member towards me….I ran to her as she looked at me like, “What?”
She had been sitting on the ground safely looking at videos the entire time. After I thanked everyone, my daughter guided me to where the staff member had found her. Apparently, while I was initializing a full fledge search for her, she had been innocently looking for a video to check out. She picked up her video, went to the check out counter, and then walked calmly beside me to the jeep as if nothing happened.
As I sat there for a few minutes, several thoughts came to mind about what I did right…
1) Instead of looking for her by myself, I went and got help. This was difficult to do. My urge was to run through the stacks and start yelling her name. However, when your child is non-responsive verbally this would have done us little good.
2) I gave the staff a description of my child. Due to sensory issues my child changes her clothing daily dozens of times. However, I am always keenly aware of the last change of clothing… just in case!
3) I didn’t panic. Again, when you have a special needs child this is easy to do. When I did begin to have racing thoughts… I remembered to deep breath.
4) I listened to instructions from the manager in charge. This is difficult to do when you are used to be the ‘driver’s seat’ with all aspects of your child. But, by listening to her I knew that one person was in charge and that they were following an obvious protocol.
5) I stayed at the entrance. There was no way she was going in or out of that building with out my knowledge.