Two days ago the remains of a missing autistic boy were positively identified. His name was Avonte, and he had been missing for months. His picture was circulated widely locally in hopes that someone would spot him. His picture was also shared over the internet on twitter and facebook, so the story of this missing boy reached far and wide. Whenever a child, especially an autistic child, goes missing, I’m instantly transported back in time, to about six years ago, when it touched my family briefly, but indelibly.
We were on vacation at the beach, where we used to go every year until my in-laws died. They would rent an apartment for the week and invite our family and my brother-in-law’s family to be with them. They were wonderful times when the cousins would connect and play, and we would enjoy one another’s company, and of course the beach.
I was on the beach with my three kids and my brother and sister-in-law and two of their children (my husband was back and the apartment spending time with his folks). It was summer, hot, and crowded. I was by the water with G, who LOVES the water like most autistic people, while my other two (E who was 8 and J who was almost 2) were back farther with their aunt and uncle and cousins, playing in the sand. I had my green chair planted near the water to keep my eye firmly planted on G, who enjoyed playing at the water’s edge.
At one point my oldest, E, came and tapped me on the shoulder saying, “where’s J? He was coming up to the water to be with you.” Panic. He was not with me. Oh God. I turned around and both E and I started looking. I spotted him about 30 feet away, walking in the wrong direction. E and I ran to him and I scooped him up and headed back towards G by the water. Except when I got back to my green chair she wasn’t there.
I looked around and she was gone. GONE. Looked left and right, backwards and in the water and she was GONE. Panic again, but saying to myself, she probably went back to play in the sand with her cousins. Looked. Not there. GONE. Panic. Real deathly, punch me in the gut panic. We always planted ourselves near the lifeguards “just in case” so I immediately went to them. My daughter is missing. She is five. She has autism. She doesn’t talk a lot. My God, what was she wearing? I couldn’t think. Thankfully I had my camera and had taken a picture of her with her bathing suit. Here, this is what she looks like! Please! She doesn’t know how to swim!
It seemed so unreal except for the panic I felt, and the real physical pain I felt in my gut, where I could swear I had just been punched. She loved the water, but was afraid of it too. She knew she couldn’t swim, and would always just stay by the water’s edge, but what if? I begged the lifeguards to search the water. They assured me they had and were confident she wasn’t in the water near them. By this time my brother and sister-in-law were with me. Then the police came. We had to go back to the house and search it. Did you know sometimes kids get it in their heads to go home and HIDE? We had to look in the closets and under beds. By now my husband was in on the act, and we all returned to the beach to search.
My in-laws stayed back at the apartment with the grandchildren, while we looked. Everyone except me. This was before the days of everyone and their cell phones, so the police made me sit on that beach and wait. They said, “WHEN we find her, we don’t want to have to go looking for YOU.” I could see that logic, but sitting still was TORTURE. I just sat and wailed. I mean, real WAILING, rocking myself in that stupid green chair, praying harder than I ever prayed in my whole life. Thinking of all the other parents who have been through this same exact thing, who prayed just like me, whose babies were NEVER found.
I could only think of her drowning or being kidnapped. We were staying in a VERY family friendly place, not like some other beach towns. Even so, there are creeps everywhere, and she was so trusting. Why didn’t I grab her before I ran to get J? Or at least tell her? The waves were loud and I would’ve had to walk to her, taking my eye off J. My split second instinct was to run for him – what could/would/should I have done differently? I had WAY too much time to think and re-think all of it. I couldn’t believe the physical pain I felt. What if they didn’t find her? How could I live with this pain for the rest of my life? How could I not want to die, but live for my other two children?
The people were wonderful – I could appreciate that even in the midst of the tornado in which I was whirling. Strangers came up to look at her picture in my camera. Groups of people started forming to walk up and down the beach. The police officer who was with me constantly reassured me that this had happened to them before and that they were very good at finding lost children.
It went on like this for over an hour. It felt like a lifetime had come and gone. And finally the officer with me said, “They found her.” I almost fainted from relief. They found her TWENTY TWO blocks away from us. My daughter walks fast, but twenty two blocks IN THE SAND in just over an hour? My sister-in-law drove my husband and I to where she was, in the capable hands of two police officers.
My husband and I thanked the them profusely, but they told us it wasn’t them who found her. A woman on the beach saw G walking and crying, and went up to her and asked if she was lost, then brought G to the lifeguards. THAT woman is my forever hero. They didn’t get her name. I’ll never know who she was. I wonder how long G was walking and crying on that beach, twenty-two blocks, and no one noticed or thought to act. I wonder how much longer G would’ve walked had that woman not stopped her.
My child knew her personal information: family names, address, phone number. Her school drums that into the students. She could talk, not a lot, but could make simple conversation. Yet what her school couldn’t make her do was reach out. She just kept walking – until someone, thank goodness a nice someone, stopped her.
I’ve often said no amount of therapy will ever “get me over” that experience. It will forever stay with me and give me nightmares, although it doesn’t happen that often now. But whenever I hear of a child gone missing, it brings it all back.
There are a few things we learned from this experience that I always pass along to parents of young kids and special needs kids especially. And with vacation time coming up for many next month (in the USA many schools have a February break) – I’ll share what I learned with you:
1) ALWAYS take their picture when you’re going somewhere for a special event or where there will be a lot of people. You will NEVER remember what they were wearing in a crisis. I was lucky I could show a picture of her in the bathing suit she was wearing, to those who were looking for her.
2) ALWAYS make sure they are wearing their personal information (impossible to do at the beach when stuff gets wet, but in that case I write my cell # on their wrist in permanent ink. They think it’s a tattoo so that’s fine and fun, and it will wash off eventually. When we went to Disney I bought G and J those thin money holders that people usually hide under their clothes, except I had them wear it like a fanny pack, and in it I put all our info, including the hotel name and room number.
3) When we go to the mall or a parade or whatever, we always tell the kids about finding a police officer if they get lost, but what to do on a beach? The LIFEGUARDS. ALWAYS stay near the lifeguard booth (which is good advice anyway with kids and water), but talk to the kids about the lifeguards. Tell them THAT is where they go if they can’t find you. Introduce them to the lifeguards so they’re not afraid.
It only takes a few seconds. It happened to me. None of this would have saved Avonte. He wandered out of his school when he should’ve been supervised, and I believe his parents are suing the school system. But any information we can share with one another, might help us with our own kids in the future…