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"Lost": A Lesson for Parents and First Responders

May 30, 2022

Tommy was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. He was verbal and considered "high-functioning," but he was sensory-seeking and a RUNNER.  

At every opportunity, and with little warning, he would dart from his parents and explore.  Elopement quickly shot to the top of Tommy's parents' list of fears and priorities to address.

Tommy's parents, teachers, and therapists did everything right. They led him through countless lessons on what to do if he ever became "lost."

  • They taught him to seek an adult or police officer and ask for help.  
  • They taught him to recite his name, street address, and phone number.
  • They drilled and tested relentlessly with every scenario they could imagine.   

By age twelve, Tommy's parents eventually began to feel a sense of security. Tommy passed every lesson and pop quiz perfectly. They believed they finally overcame their biggest fear and could rest easy, knowing he would know what to do if he got "lost."  

When Tommy was fourteen, he accompanied his mom to the local shopping mall one summer day. Unfortunately, Tommy's mom became distracted while making a purchase at a clothing store. She turned her head for a second, and he disappeared.  

Mall security and eventually the local police responded, and the subsequent search was extensive.  

Officers located Tommy across the mall after the most gut-wrenching hour of Tommy's mom's life. He was safe and seemingly unfazed by the ordeal.  

Finally reunited with her son, Tommy's mom hugged him and cried. 

"What about everything we taught you?" she asked. "Why didn't you find an adult or the police? Why didn't you follow the rules for being lost?"

Tommy looked at her, confused. 

"Mom, I wasn't lost. We are at the mall. I knew exactly where I was. I just couldn't find you."

In Tommy's mind, being "lost" meant wandering around the wilderness, not knowing his way out. He couldn't conceive of being "lost" inside a local shopping mall he had visited dozens of times with his mom.

In all of their lessons, through all of their drills and pop quizzes, Tommy's parents skipped a fundamental but critical step: They neglected to agree on the very definition of being "lost."

This is a lesson for parents and first responders alike. Be careful with assumptions and honor the extraordinary mind of the concrete and literal thinker.   

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