July 14, 2010

Lost in Transition

Posted in My Take on Autism tagged , , at 6:24 am by autismmommytherapist

“Your juice is coming, my liege” I assured Justin jovially as he settled himself into his extravagant English stroller, a device we acquired to accommodate the large frame of my seven-year-old autistic child whose persistent motor apraxia still precludes him from the boundless energy of a typical child his age. Normally I strap him in after each ride at Great Adventure, but our intended destination is the Runaway Train, a mere hundred yards up ahead, so close I can ascertain the hair color of its screaming passengers. As I release the juice box into his waiting hand, I am momentarily distracted by the loud chortle of one of the four teen-aged girls seated on the bench within inches of Justin’s knees. I glance quickly at the middle-aged woman in from of them who has just finished recording the moment for posterity on her digital camera, and know immediately she is mother to the two girls seated like bookends on the bench, as their collective likeness to one another is almost startling. I hear the slurp of straw that signals Justin is almost finished with his beverage, and as I reach for the empty container my foot becomes entangled in the combination lock wrapped tightly around the base of the stroller and the bench. I reach all the way down to the ground and move the last tumbler into the correct position, snake out our safety wire, shove it into the bottom of the stroller, and begin to move on to the terrors of Justin’s favorite coaster.

The stroller is weightless. He is gone.

Adrenaline courses through my body so swiftly, so profoundly, I actually feel my heard constrict painfully with the rush, coinciding with that first instant of knowledge that perhaps something irrevocable, unthinkable, has occurred. I look straight at the mother standing two feet in front of Justin’s empty vehicle, emit a primal cry of “Where is my son?”, and am rewarded with a look of utter indifference as the woman turns away and resumes her private photo shoot. I contemplate, without actually experiencing these thoughts coherently, that there are three options for his defection. To the right is the waiting ride; straight ahead is the restroom; and the last is to the left, where Wiggles World retains the rights to one of the saltiest pretzels ever created. I know it has been at most five seconds since he was cocooned in his throne, but there are moderate crowds today, and if I wish to maintain visual contact I must choose correctly. I understand the gravity of my choice, the weight of my decision, and instinctively I look to the left.

It is as I’ve thought. My son, with his awkward, loping gait, has gained purchase to two hundred or so yards of freedom from me, and is hell-bent on acquiring his favorite snack. He remains within calling distance, and I know a neurotypical seven-year-old would hear his mother’s voice, know he was in deep trouble, and stop in his tracks. I comprehend with complete certainty that this will not be the case with Justin. I rush after him, yelling his name anyway in the hopes some adult or security person will grab him, and I realize I am still clutching the stroller although I couldn’t care less about its worth or the contents of the bag it contains. I simply need to hold onto something at this moment, and my body will not allow me the release.

Within seconds I have caught him, finally abandoning my four-wheeled contraption and sprinting the last three or four feet to grab his shoulder and whip him around to face me. For a moment he will not make eye contact, his entire body still straining toward his aborted destination, his visual target clearly not his mother’s face. I say his name again, loudly and with force behind it, and he finally regards me, sees the look on my face, cups my cheeks, and pulls me toward him. He kisses me rapidly over and over, five, six, seven times, conducting his penance, admitting his contrition. He turns and seats himself in the waiting stroller, and as I secure the straps he again pulls me by the shirt and kisses me, looks me straight in the eye for one final apology, then points in the direction of Wiggles World.

I maneuver between two thoughts; that perhaps this is the second time in my son’s life he has pointed without the antecedent of a command, and that I almost lost my firstborn over a carbohydrate, a food group his mother tries often and unsuccessfully to avoid. I tell him we’ll get the damn pretzel, make certain his straps are secured together with military precision, and turn towards the Big Red Car. I can feel my fight or flight response dissipate, my heart rate return to some semblance of normalcy, and my eyes begin to well. I could have lost him today, my child who cannot say his name but would have certainly navigated his way to the precise location he coveted without assistance, only to be bewildered at the conclusion of his journey that his mother was not there to liberate his chosen food item for him. I am struck by the idea that I believe I should have known instantly he was missing, felt the air cleave between us at his absence. I almost cannot believe it actually happened.

In seven years, Justin has never attempted to escape from me, nor was he doing so now. The proper term for this event is called “eloping”, a romantic, wistful word hideously paired with an unimaginable terror. His need for proximity to me has always been a great comfort, eradicated the worry he might go missing. I know several parents whose offspring will do anything to evade their homes and caregivers, children who have been found wandering highways, roof tops, trees, and even neighbors’ homes. I have always been grateful Justin has chosen to remain near, has demonstrated no desire to elude those who care for him. He is one-third of his way through childhood, and it is the first time he has ever attempted this to such a degree. I am well aware it could have been his last.

I understand I have been given a gift, a second chance. I know my heart cannot endure the recurrence of even another few moments like these, nor the specter of a lifetime of knowing he is missing, no longer safe. I disengage the lock on the stroller and we move forward, but I feel we’ve taken such a step backwards. Today, one blessing that I took for granted has been irretrievably lost, even as my son has been most joyously found.