Saturday, April 03, 2010

Disappearing on World Autism Awareness Day

Our family didn't need to see a Facebook event reminder, or a newspaper headline to remember that today was Autism Awareness Day. It would be fair to say that we are made aware of autism on a daily basis. It would also be fair to say that we make other people aware of it regularly. This could never be more true than it was today.

Our lovely, usually passive, often lazy, reliably predictable seven year old child, Owen, decided to remind all of us just how much autism has affected our lives. It hasn't just seeped into our lives quietly and  imperceptibly. It slammed into us head on today so that we were forced to stand up and take notice.

Jonathan gave me the day to work down in the basement office. I was working on a scrapbooking project for the twins' upcoming school fundraising gala. I was grateful to be allowed a chunk of a day where I could close the door and just get stuff done. Without interruptions. Without having to worry that if I looked away, someone might get into the food cupboards, or make a humongous mess, or have a toilet training accident, or try to ride our blind and deaf pug like she's a horse.

Jake and Will asked to have a bath in the middle of the afternoon (a favourite pastime in our home for the boys), so Jonathan left Owen watching a Sesame St. video in the main-floor family room while he ran upstairs to run the bath. How long does it take to turn the faucet on, plug the plunger into the drain and lay out a couple of towels?

Rewind an hour or two. Jake had been playing outside on the driveway.

Why is this important? It shouldn't be. It wouldn't be in anyone else's house. We've got a nine year old who, like other kids his age, is allowed to come in and out of the front door without having to make a grand announcement about it to his parents. But in THIS house, we have a nine year old who is fiercely proud of this bit of independence, but we also have two seven year old little boys who are likely envious of their big brother's free coming and going's, but they aren't allowed to do the same.


Because they have autism. Because they don't understand the safety rules. Because their parents are paranoid that because they are non-verbal and trusting, they might wander off with a stranger. Because they are non-verbal, we can't ask them if they understand the rules and the guidelines and the limits to where they can go and if they'll come back. Because their behaviour is unpredictable, we don't know if they might chase a car that drives by, or run up to a stranger to sniff their clothes or touch their shiny hair or push them off their bike so they can have a turn.

Because of this, because their busy parents can't hang out in the playground and the driveway all day, the twins were indoors on a day where they probably wished they weren't. And Jake got to play outside. And when Jake came inside and settled in, he didn't make a grand announcement about it.

And we didn't latch the door after he came in.

As simple as that. The door wasn't latched.

Back to my question. How long does it take to turn the faucet on, plug the plunger into the drain and lay out a couple of towels? -Long enough for Owen to seize the opportunity, put on his light blue rubber boots and make a run for it.

The $110 a month security service we installed after Will's first runaway mission a few years ago didn't help us today. Because it wasn't activated. You don't activate an alarm during the day when you are in and out every 20 minutes when it's so nice outside. The chime that went off on the main floor to alert us of the door's opening, wasn't heard by myself in the basement office, or by Jonathan who was hearing the rushing water from the tap upstairs. In the less than five minutes for Jonathan to come back downstairs and see the front door wide open, Owen was gone.

Sprinting downstairs to pop his head into the office to see if Owen was with me, I learned Owen had run. The playground five doors down was my first thought and Jonathan's too. Off he went running. I sprinted up to the bath and dragged Jake and Will out of it, begging Jake to hurry so he could get on his bike and start searching the street. Will wasn't happy to leave the tub and I had to drag him outside to the driveway, where I saw the neighbours running along the sidewalk, peeking into backyards and alerting others to join in their search. With no luck at the playground, Jonathan took off into the provincial park, headed for the Bow River. My heart sank watching him go and I started to shake.

Owen has never run. It has always been Will we've had to keep an eagle eye on. Owen whines after having to walk more than 10 steps. He begs for piggy-backs and opts for the wagon. It's never Owen. This is bad.

I got Will into the van to begin my own search. Jonathan came back through the gates to the park with his arms up in the air, shaking his head no. Oh my God. If he's not in the Park and not at the playground, where the hell is he??? God forgive me. I thought, if he's not at the riverbed, it's because he's already floated down the Bow. Black Fear.

My neighbour told me I needed to call 911 before going off on my own search. I did and I heard a voice tell me that I had to wait because operators were busy on other calls. Are you kidding me?!?! Police were dispatched, they kept me on the line, asked me to stay put. Did I know what Owen was wearing? -Oh God, I couldn't remember what shirt he had on. I'm a terrible parent. I remember telling her that he was toilet training and we had had to change his clothes several times that day and I couldn't remember. Did he have a buddy who's house he probably went to? -No. He has no friends on the street. I started to bawl. I was crying in fear that Owen wouldn't live to have a true friend. She asked if I had other children. -Yes, he is a twin to a brother who also has autism and a younger brother to Jake. I heard her gasp, then try to cover up her surprise by saying that we have our hands full and she can tell that we are wonderful parents. Ya. Really wonderful. We don't latch doors and our kids disappear right under our noses. She promised me that several cars were patrolling and searching for Owen. That they were usually successful and found missing children very quickly. Usually.

Fifteen minutes, 30, I don't know how long. It felt like a lifetime. The police officer told me that they had received a call and they believe they have found a boy who fit our description. I remember hanging on her every word, waiting for her to tell me he was okay. She asked me to hang in there with her while she waited for more information. I waited. I was rewarded for my patience. "A woman phoned police to let us know that she picked up a little boy who fits Owen's description. We're sending police to meet her and they'll let us know shortly if it's him."

It was. Owen was found about one and a quarter miles away. The kid who hates to walk. In his light blue rubber boots. He was seen crossing a four lane busy road by a passerby, who fortunately, was not a psycho-sicko and who had previous experience working with kids with autism. She pulled over, picked him up and waited for the police. God Bless Her. I hope she knows we are eternally grateful. I also hope she knows that the best way to get rid of the stink is to just roll down the windows. Our toilet-training Owen pooped in her car. Oops.

I squeezed him so hard I think I scared him enough to not run ever again. I lectured him and told him that he can't ever scare Mommy and Daddy like that again. He shook his head no, as if to say that he should never run away again, but he had a smirky grin that told me who knew exactly what worry he caused and he seemed quite pleased with himself.

He is now sound asleep in his bed, curled up like a turtle with his comforter over his head. He will most likely sleep soundly, with only memories of an adventure dancing his head. He won't realize that his parents are in bed on the other side of his wall. Wide awake and trying to distract themselves from allowing their minds to replay the day's nightmare. Reminded yet again that if you try and pretend that you are a normal family, doing normal things, autism will remind you of why you cannot. You must always remain vigilant and alert. You must have three sets of eyes, three sets of ears, twenty sets of hands and quick feet. You must have loads of money to pay for the expenses of GPS bracelets, security systems, reinforced locks and doors, special windows that don't open all the way, the salary of extra aides to help shadow your children's every move and the therapy to teach safety, even if it takes 5 years of repetition teaching. You must have the patience of a saint, the energy to exceed that of your children and the courage to take on every challenge. You must have the ability to put yourself fourth and use your mind-over-body ability to suppress the need to pee, shower, or eat -because you're not allowed to do these things, lest you take your eyes off of your child.

I suppose that besides the lessons in safety that were reinforced today, autism also delivered us a gift. A reminder to be grateful for the boys that we have. For every moment that we have with them. Because as I tucked them in tonight, the thought that I may not have had my child to put to bed this night, was not far from my mind.

We are very aware.


Sarah said...

Oh gosh. I am so glad that you found him. So so so scary. Sending you hugs from Ontario.

fancypants said...

The thought of a child disappearing strikes fear the heart of every parent- I know it has for me. Words cannot say how happy I am that you found Owen and he is ok. You must know you are not a bad parent- please don't beat yourself up about it. Sending you lots of love and hugs...

Anonymous said...

your so rite mom!im quite mad at myself that we hadent ternd arond at grannies house beacause the was a large croad of people and we didint notice hi was rite thare.

ModernMom said...

I held my breath as I tore my way through this post. Thank goodness everything turned out alright. I can only imagine the fear you must have felt....and you felt it because you are such an amazing parent.
It is also good to know that kindness can still be found in strangers.

More hugs from Ontario!

Zoe Lancaster said...

Hi Stacey,

Thank you for sharing your story. I am so relieved that Owen's adventure ended safely. What a terrifying experience.

I have an adorable little boy with Autism in my class. He is high-functioning and verbal, but has a tendency to wander away. It's only ever been down the hallway but the sheer panic it causes stays with you. I can only imagine how much more acute it was in your situation. I'm so sorry all of you had to go through that.


Nezzy said...

I'm so glad it was an angel who found Owen. Teaching Special Ed. and working with autistic children I still can't wrap my head around what you face 24/7. I'm so thrilled thing worked out well and you were able to tuck him in and wish him sweet dreams.

God bless and have a wonderful Wednesday!!!

BLOOM - Parenting Kids With Disabilities said...

Stacey -- I'm so glad to see that you are back! I'm very sorry to hear about this ordeal you all went through.

I know you're awesome parents and those boys are very lucky to have you. Take care! and I look forward to keeping in touch.

Momma@Live. Laugh. Pull your hair out said...

OMG! ((hugs))

A parents worst fear...but you had a wonderful ending thankfully.

Jen said...

Stacey, I was so pleasantly surprised to see you on Canada AM this morning! You were awesome, such an inspriration and an amazingly caring woman.

hugs from
Jen and the Mighty Quinn

Nezzy said...

I was just checkin' in to see how you are doing.

Have a wonderfully blessed day!!!

Otin said...

Hey! I am just stopping in to say hello. It has been a while!

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