All Who Wander

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in August my nine-year-old son left the house, headed toward the local park, and returned home about an hour later.

This is an unremarkable story on the face of it. Nine-year-olds routinely roam their neighborhoods unattended, and no one thinks about it twice. I spent my own formative years trailblazing in the woods behind my house, to the concern of no one. Nine is the age where kids are expected to strike out on their own, ride off on their bikes or stroll around the corner, and be trusted to resurface soon.

But my son has classic autism, and is almost entirely non-verbal, and returned to our house in the company of the Seattle Police Department. So it was moderately big deal.

* * *

That my son was going to the park is supposition. He didn’t tell us where he was going or that he was leaving. He walked out the door in his stocking feet, without a word to anyone. I didn’t even know he’d left until I glanced out the window and noticed that he was no longer on his ginormous swingset, where he had been a few minutes prior. He had never before wandered off unaccompanied, so I searched everywhere to ensure that he wasn’t just hanging in a corner of the yard, or goofing around in the garage.

When I was confident that he had in fact left the premises, I told my wife he was missing and sprinted north, toward the park, assuming that to be his destination. After running down the five-block hill while calling his name, and back up it while panting his name, I jumped on my bicycle, wondering why I hadn’t thought of that in the first place. My wife hopped in the car, and we began to canvass the neighborhood.

All of this was alarming to us for a couple of reason, even beyond the obvious. We had moved to this neighborhood a month ago, and weren’t sure if he knew the area well enough to find his way home. More to the point, we weren’t really sure that he would think to return home, even if he knew the way. Whether he groks the concept of “lost” is one of his many mysteries.

Furthermore, we knew that he wouldn’t approach anyone and tell them that he was lost, should the realization ever strike. “Non-Verbal” doesn’t mean that my son is mute, by the way; he speaks quite a bit. But most of his vocalizations are “scripting”, the repetition of phrases he’s heard on television, radio, and MP3s, or read in books. Communication, on the other hand, is rare and and limited. He will tell us if he wants something, so long as a word for his desire is within his repertoire. We could envision him telling a passerby that he wanted food, or a drink, or to be “lifted up”, but “hey, can you help me get home?” would have displayed a semantic complexity heretofore unexhibited.

And it wouldn’t be obvious that he was in need of assistance. He would appear to most as a typical nine-year-old adventurer, kicking rocks down the street, talking animatedly to himself, occasionally stopping to drop pebbles down a drain for check out an especially interesting mailbox. Prolonged observation reveals some anomalies — he moves erratically, often jumping up and down just for the joy of it, and is seemingly allergic to traveling in a straight line — but a neighbor glancing out their window would not immediately tumble to the fact that he was autistic or lost, although they would probably wonder at the parents who let their child to go strolling in socks.

These were the thoughts that went through my head during those first frantic minutes. But I remained eerily calm. For one thing, my brain had basically opened Task Manager and killed all processes that were not directly related to the goal of finding my son, a list that included “Freaking the Fuck Out”. For another, I was relatively confident that he had struck out parkward. That is the direction he and I customarily go on our walks, and thus routine (to which he is a discipline) would almost certainly send him that way. Plus, that particular stretch of neighborhood is an ideal place to lose your kid, if you are ever so unfortunate to do so, packed as it is with families and civic-minded sorts, who will gladly take a break from tending their neighborhood garden or restocking the corner birdhouse/library to get your child home safely.

About twenty minutes into our search I called 911. I explained to the dispatcher my theory as to how this would play out: my son would either arrive at the park or wind up in a yard during his journey, someone would notice his atypical behavior and attempt to strike up a conversation, and a few minutes later the SPD would receive a phone call. “And that’ll be my kid,” I summarized. The operator said that she would alert the department and send a few officers to search the park.

* * *

A hallmark of autism is that those with the condition don’t always respond to their name. This is vexing for obvious reasons, but was also comforting in the moment: the fact that he hadn’t shown up in response to my hollering did not imply that he was out of earshot. I still believed him to be somewhere in those five blocks, but ditched my bike and hopped into my truck to cover a wider area.

I drove the blocks south of our home, and some side streets, and then decided to check in with the recreation center within the park, where he and I sometimes went swimming. Behind the desk was a nervous woman who looked alarmed at my entrance.

“Hi,” I said, “I’m looking for a kid about this tall, in a red shirt.”

Her eyes widened. “Do I need to shut down the pool?

I glanced around. The pool was visible from where I stood, but behind a solid wall of glass. There was no way to access it except through the locker rooms. “That … doesn’t seem necessary. I’m just wondering-”

“Because if there’s a chance he might fall in the pool, we need to shut it down.

“I uh, I totally get that. But I’m not worried that he’s going to fall in the pool. And even if he did, he’s an excellent swimmer …” I could see her panic rise. “Not that he would! Fall in the pool! I don’t think he could even get to it. I’m just asking if you’ve seen him? Or if you could call me if you do?”

She took a moment to digest all this, fished a pencil out of the holder, and flipped a swim schedule facedown. “What does he look like?”

“Blonde hair, about this tall. Red shirt. Socks, but no shoes.”

She had thus far written nothing, and gave me a strange look at this last revelation.

“He’s autistic,” I explained.

She wrote “AUTISM”.

Eventually I cajoled her into adding my phone number to the diagnosis, and drove back home.

* * *

My phone rang just as I pulled into the driveway. It was my wife calling.

“Found him,” she said. “We’ll be home in a few minutes.”

“Okay,” I replied. “I’m already here.”

Then I hung up bawled like a baby.

I climbed out of my truck a few minutes later, when my son, and my wife, and an officer of the Seattle Police Department came trudging up the hill. Aside from his socks, he looked no worse for the wear. He had, in fact, somehow scored a can of Diet Ginger Ale out of the deal.

He had been about two and a half blocks away the entire time. After walking in the direction of the park for a few minutes he had become enamored by a particularly alluring yard, one full of rockeries and whirligigs, and spent the remainder of his time playing therein. The owner noticed him, quickly realized that my son was not neurotypical, and phoned it in. When the police arrived my son was sitting on the front steps, supervised by our neighbor and enjoying a complimentary soft drink.

After copious thanks (officer) and admonishments (son), we retreated to our home, where we spent the rest of the afternoon coming down from our collective adrenaline high. Except for my son, of course, who seemed unaltered by the entire experience, and devoted his afternoon to watching Curious George episodes in the basement, blissfully unaware that he would never be allowed to leave the house again.