How an Accident Broke my Autistic Son’s Trust

My son has autism. He also has learning difficulties and no speech. I am not going to lie; everyday is a struggle. He is 9 now and slowly we have learnt strategies that help both him and the rest of the family cope.

We have learnt to use visuals to aid his understanding.

We have strict routines for school mornings and bedtime.

We use ‘first/then’ so he knows that one thing follows another.

We use social stories.

We give him plenty of time to process what is happening and what we are doing.

We let him chose between no more than two things because anything more confuses and stresses him.

We get by day to day. We have screaming and frustrations but by and large we stumble through.

But what happens when an emergency or a crisis happens and you have no time to do any of the above?

Two weeks ago I was driving my car on a very fast road with my son with me. I have been driving for over twenty years and never been involved in an accident. I explain to my son hat was going to happen using words and visuals. I was picking up a family member then we would get his sister from gran’s house and then go home. He screamed at the thought of transitioning from his comfy seat at home with YouTube on his iPad to having to sit in the car. I was patient and gave him time to process. I strapped him in and made sure he was comfortable and then I set off.

It was all going exactly like I had explained to my son in his social story. It was such a simple story with a photo of mums car, a photo of my brother’s house, my mums house, his sister then home. That was how it was all meant to happen.

Except it didn’t.

On the journey home we were unfortunately involved in a major car accident. That wasn’t in the ‘first and then’ or the social story and there was certainly no visual of my smashed up car and inflated air bags!

This is when non verbal autism is serious. In an emergency situation how do you help a child with severe autism and limited understanding cope?

How do I explain he can’t get out of the car when cars are speeding past us at 70 miles per hour? How do I know if he is injured from the crash or even in shock? He just sat there in total silence.

When the paramedic first arrived he asked my 9 year old his name. My son never answered. He asked him his age. Silence. My 9 year old has less language than an average 1 year old and all of a sudden the reality of that crushed my heart. The paramedic then asked me if I had an idea if my son was injured. He can’t even point to parts of his body in the nursery song ‘head shoulders knees and toes’ so how on earth can he say if he is in pain or where?

All three lanes of high speed traffic were halted while my car was pushed over to the hard shoulder for safety. To my son this was wonderful! He thought the car was moving again and I should get in and drive him home. That’s what was in his social story after all!

If I thought getting my son out of the house and into the car an hour earlier had been hard I had no idea! Now I had to get my son out of my smashed up car and into the back of an ambulance. He has no concept of what an ambulance is. He was not for getting out of my car.

Autism is hard. In an emergency autism can be impossible!

I could not suddenly show him visuals. I had no pre-prepared picture story. I could not give him adequate time to process! His life was in danger and sadly I had no choice but to pull him out that car and drag him into that ambulance. I wish he could understand why I had to do that but I don’t think he ever will.

My son is ok. The next day a lot of bruising appeared but thankfully it was all superficial from his seat belt. The real damage though is to his trust and no-one can give me any idea when that will heal, if ever.

While my injuries will heal over time (ligament damage and bruised bones) I can at least understand what happened.

My son with autism has no concept of ‘emergency’ or even ‘different’.

He won’t entertain any social stories now. He just screams when we say ‘first and then’ and he throws away all the visuals we have.

He can not process the fact that an emergency happened and things had to change.

A friend said about the accident ‘thank goodness nothing was broken except the car’.

Sadly the crash broke much more than a vehicle.

An emergency situation broke my son’s ability to trust me and there is no insurance that will cover that.

19 thoughts on “How an Accident Broke my Autistic Son’s Trust

  1. Absolutely heartbreaking.
    It’s probably no comfort to you at this moment but the trust will slowly and painfully be rebuilt. My oldest son is 23 and severely autistic with no speech and I sent him to a college where he was bullied and I didn’t find out for ages. His behaviour was awful, meltdowns, looking at me with suspicion but 3 years down the line he will get in the car if I explain where we are going, exactly what we are going to do and don’t break from it.
    It always seems like just as progress is being made, something comes along to absolutely derail it. I hope that somehow you all come through this as unscathed as possible xx

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh Miriam.
    You did the best you could in an impossible situation. Give him time. Lay the visuals out away from him so he may see them. Don’t say anything. Words and pictures are not to be tolerated together right now.
    Gradually move the pictures by the door, there’s no stress for him to confirm to look at them but he will glance from time to time.
    No body knows how hard a change is for a child as severe as ours. But it will get better.
    Every day will be a tiny tiny improvement, you’re in my prayers..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This moved me to tears. I’m so sad for your son, how scary and confusing it must be. My daughter is 5 and similar in terms of communication and understanding, so I totally relate to this. As Lesley said, it will get better over time, and we have to hold onto that hope, but I feel your pain. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My heart breaks for you. The trust will come back, but it will take a lot of hard work. It will be like going back to the beginning when you taught him social stories. When you learned about routines. Keep going, be normal, or as normal as you can. He will come around. He will crave the familiar. The stories, routines and choices are familiar.

    Sending you lots and lots of love. Not as one autism mum to another but from one mother to another.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. First of all, i am so sorry to read this. Accidents can be hard enough for those who have perfect understanding, but it must have been impossible to grasp for your son. Something scary happened in the car which he cannot get his head around. I hope in time, his trust will gradually be rebuilt. It will just take lots of patience and time for him to associate the car with good things again. Hugs to you and i hope you feel better soon too 😦 xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am so sorry you had to go through that. I understand how it feels as a mother to hurt for your child who is non verbal. My son is 11 now and non verbal with autism and epilepsy. I hope your son is doing much better now and that your heart and mind are with peace. Great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. We have trying to teach my son how to ride a bike since 4 years old. I could write down all the steps but I will get to the point. At 9 years he finally managed to wobble down the rode on a two wheeler. We practiced every day for about 10 minutes. Then he had a fall where he scraped his knee. Well …that was it…no more bike riding. It took a full year for him to try again with the bribe of a desired reward. He is now at 10.5 years and a good bike rider with an adult alongside, and goes out for long rides with his dad. If you had asked me if I thought this was possible, I would have not have believed it. Excellent article by the way – your story will help a lot of parents.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi I am currently going through the exact same situation at the moment how is your son now
    I am 2 years on and still he is struggling


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