The stories always make my heart drop to my knees. The headline grabs me and grips my attention: Missing Autistic Child. The latest that I read was a non-verbal six-year-old boy who went missing while on a walk with his dad. The hair on the back of neck stood up, and I became chilled. The gut-wrenching horror to have your child disappear out of your sight in a matter of a blink of an eye.
A few years ago when P was three-years-old, we came face to face with the same gut-wrenching horror. We were out of town eating lunch at the mall. We were enjoying a favorite family restaurant, Chik-fil-a. At the time, trips out in public places were always with the knowledge that P had to be within an arm’s distance of an adult. We had finished our food when we were clearing the table and gathering our belongings. At the time, I thought P was with my husband, and my husband thought P was with me. It was probably two to three minutes when we realized P was nowhere to be seen. Gone from the crowded food court. Nowhere. Not in our eyesight. Not within an arm’s distance.
My heart was pounding. I felt every beat echo in my mind. Adrenaline running through my veins. Thoughts pouring through me. Anyone could have offered a hand to P and P would have happily followed. He did not have a fear of being away from us. The need to escape was alive and well in that little boy. P knew no strangers. Frantically, we raced around the food court praying to find our happy-go-lucky toddler. Instead, we found a security guard who immediately knew from our frantic actions that we needed help.
The missing child protocol was put into action as we told the security officer what P was wearing, hair color, eye color, and he probably won’t respond to his name. Hot tears streaming down my face. Guilt pouring over me. Why didn’t I keep a closer eye on him? I was so scared we might not find P. More security officers joined in on the search sweeping the area for signs of my sweet boy. Time seemed to be at a standstill. The noise of the mall was a blur. The people all seemed to be moving in slow motion.
Then a sight that a miracle in my eyes. A mom was talking to another security officer. She and her children saw a little boy, my boy, all by himself. The mom asked her kids to follow the boy so she could get help. It was our boy! P was brought back to us. I wiped tears from my face. My sweet boy knew nothing was wrong. He didn’t know that many people were looking for him. He didn’t know anything was wrong. He was smiling and happily chattering away. A million thank yous to the security officers didn’t seem adequate. How could I ever thank the mom for using her mom-sense when she saw P alone. Nothing I could ever say or do would ever repay my gratitude.
Our story is different, I realize, but it could have just as easily been the same as the others. Autistic Child Missing. Because it can happen. It does happen. In a heartbeat, a blink of an eye, before we know it our child slipped away from us. Beyond measure, I am so grateful that our experience lasted less than an hour. To us, it might as well have been forever. Our family got to leave intact that day. A bit weary from the experience, but a family unit intact. I know not all stories end like ours. That is why I pray for them. I pray that their sweet babies find their way home. And I pray the families guilt does not consume them for a lifetime.
I would like to say that that was the only time that P has slipped away from us. But it wasn’t. I realized, and I have told myself that P knows no fear to be away from his family and he will always have the need to escape out of loud, sensory-producing events. There are a few things we do to protect ourselves when we go to a large public place that could cause P to have sensory overload and wander from us. We always take a picture of him before we get into the event or location. P is dressed in bright colors. Neon yellow, orange, greens, and blues. This has taken coaching, time, and practice P has heard us say to him over and over tell us when you need a break. He usually tells us with words, but if no words we see it in his actions. Shallow breathing, itchy skin, complaints of being hot are our cues its time for that break.
Those stories grip my attention. My heart aches for those families. Because I know that we could have been one of them.
All my best to you,