He was completely oblivious to the safety risks present in the world around him, preferring to play in windows rather than with toys, making a game out of getting the car door open while the vehicle was moving on the interstate. My husband and I lived in a constant state of fear, ready to spring into action at a moment's notice should he fall, should he cut himself or should he escape.
He was five years old when he first escaped from our home.
Barefoot and armed only with his security blankets and a plush Barnie, he left our home, and we didn't even know it. Earlier that day, we were in our car, returning to our house after running a typical Saturday morning errand.
"Mall," he said.
"No, Buddy," I told him. "Not now. Lunch."
"Mall," he repeated.
"No," I firmly countered. "Lunch time."
"Mall," he continued.
"Lunch first, then mall," I told him. End of story, my little man!
He started to whine in protest, but I didn't care. After all, I wasn't saying he could never go. I was merely saying not now. Our son had very little language at the time. A tense discourse on the matter was out of the question, yet as his protests grew, the closer we came to our house, his feelings on the matter were quite clear to me. He didn't need language to tell me that he was angry. I didn't need the two-way conversation to say that, too bad, he'd have to wait until after lunch.
That's what I thought, anyway.
By the time we entered the house, our big guy was red-faced and crying. I was immune to the tears and intent on finding a mental happy place as I set about making lunch. The sooner we ate the sooner I'd get him to the mall, and we'd all be happy.
I locked the kitchen door, a dead bolt lock which we had installed up at the top of the door frame out of our son's immediate reach. It was the newest in a progression of locks that we had placed on the doors of our house to keep him inside and safe. After all, our guy was a bolter. He was smart. He enjoyed locks ever-so-much, and he enjoyed beating those locks even more.
As I prepared the food in the kitchen, I could hear him screaming upstairs. The screaming. For some reason or another, this child had screamed simply so much in his lifetime. And, frankly, the more I got to understand him and his autism--his sensory pain, his gastric pain, his trouble forming words and moving his body in general, his comorbid anxiety and depression as well--really, I couldn't blame him for the screaming.
I just wish that I could help him. How could I help him?
I spent every waking minute of every day trying to figure out how I could help this child. His brother, two years younger and born with a paralyzed arm due to a brachial plexus injury at birth, required therapy of his own. Brother often took a back seat to autism. Little did I know that it wouldn't be very long before he would receive a diagnosis as well.
Just how did we find ourselves here, and what could I do to crate some semblance of a joyful childhood for our two boys?
As I mulled over these thoughts and put the final touches on the lunch preparations, I realized that our older son's crying had stopped. I felt relief that the tantrum was over; however, in the next moment, I realized that it was just too quiet. Although he had very little language, our son actually made a good deal of noise, and at that moment, our house was dead silent.
I bolted toward his bedroom but didn't have to go far. For, as soon as I reached the front hallway, I saw that he had somehow reached the lock at the top of the door frame, beaten it for the first time. Out the door he went, leaving it wide open for us to find.
He was gone.
He not only had a head start on us, he was simply GONE. Our child who couldn't speak. Our child who wouldn't look before crossing the road. That child had run out the door, and I could not find him.
I don't think that I had ever felt true panic before then.
Fearing the worst, I screamed for my husband at the top of my voice and told him that our son had run out the door. I had no idea how long he'd been gone. I had no idea in what direction he ran. I did not know where he was!!!
The fear of losing your child is greater than losing your own life. The fear of losing your nonverbal, autistic child because you simply could not lock the doors enough, lock the windows enough, lock the car or garage or ANYTHING enough was unbearable.
My husband ran. He simply ran. He picked a direction and ran faster than I'd ever seen him run. I grabbed our preschooler, tossed him into the van and set out in the opposite direction of my husband. We lived on a main road. I was scared.
"But, where is he?" our younger son asked innocently, not fully understanding the crazy life into which he'd been born.
"I don't know, honey," I said to him. "Can you help me find him? Tell me if you see your brother out the window!" I requested of him. My voice caught in my throat as I choked back a sob. No mother should ever have to ask her three-year-old to help locate his older brother on the street.
I rolled down all the windows and started shouting his name. I don't know why. It wasn't as though he'd answer. If he were about to run into the street, he would not stop if he heard my voice. Still, I called out to him.
Then, I hear it. It was my husband calling my name. He'd found him!
Thank you! Thank you Dear God!!! I started to sob.
Circling the streets, I finally came upon them, father and son, both with their heads hung low. Our son, barefoot and with his blankies and Barney, had decided that he could walk the few miles to get to the mall. Forget us. Forget our schedule and forget lunch.
The look on my husband's face was one of sad resignation. Our son was sorry to be going back home. They both got into the car, buckled, and from the back seat I hear, "Mall."
"Mall," he said, as if this whole traumatic event had never happened.
I sighed and said, "Lunch first," knowing that on that day, our little family had turned a corner along this journey.
April is autism awareness month.