What sort of mother loses her own child?
What sort of mother loses her non-verbal autistic child in a shopping center on a busy Saturday afternoon?
It was all a big misunderstanding. I had to take my other child to the bathroom, so I told the other adult with me where I was going and where I would meet him. He either never heard me or never understood, and I never thought to check as I had to get my other child to the bathroom quickly. In hindsight, I should have checked.
I dealt with the other child and made my way to the agreed meet-up place. Before we even got there, I could tell something wasn’t right. I heard screaming and crying and there were crowds at the doorway of the store I was going to. Mother’s intuition hit me right there. I had that horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that somehow this was about my son.
I know my son’s scream and those were HIS screams I was hearing. He had someone with him though, right? Except the closer to the noise I got, the better I could see my child lashing out and attacking — through sheer panic — the very people who were clearly trying to help him. I ran over. I can’t run very fast, but adrenaline carried me to my baby.
The noise of the adults shouting, firing off questions and more questions; the piercing of my son’s screams; the blasting of the shop’s music – it was all too much, even for me, let alone my terrified little boy. I grabbed him from the security guard and held him tight. He sobbed and sobbed, more than I had ever known him do before in his life.
“Yes, he’s mine.”
“No, I was not aware he was on his own.”
“Yes, of course I am sorry he was hitting you.”
I fell to my knees with one of my children standing beside me, wondering what this was all about, and the other in a heap on my knee still yelling and crying for all he was worth.
The tears welled up in my eyes and I could not control them falling down my face.
“He’s autistic,” I sniffled softly. “He can’t speak.”
The tuts and stares were so powerful they were like nails piercing right through me.
Finally, the crowd dissipated and only the security guard remained. By this time, the other adult appeared and the reality of what had happened finally hit me. My non-verbal 9-year-old with severe autism had been alone and lost in a busy shopping mall on a busy Saturday afternoon.
It doesn’t matter who was to “blame.” The fact was that it happened.
You can judge me all you like, but every day there are autistic children getting lost because they wander or get attracted to sensory stimuli and they have little or no understanding of danger. My son was found because he was watching the automatic doors open and close, and he was screaming. When the security guard noticed he was alone, he physically stopped him.
My son was not crying because he realized he was lost or because he missed me. He has no concept of what lost even means.
I have to live with what happened today. I have to find a way to keep him safe even when there are other adults with me. It should never have happened, but it did.
Please don’t be too quick to judge me.
Please be aware that children with autism are especially vulnerable. Be aware that not every child can even tell you their name or where they live. Be aware that, in seconds, a child can wander.
Be aware than even good parents like me can lose their autistic child, and we have to live with that for the rest of our lives. No judgment from anyone else will be greater than the guilt I have to live with now.
My story ended well. Not every story like mine will.
Losing your non-verbal autistic child: there is nothing more terrifying in the whole wide world.
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