Monday, July 8, 2013

Another Young Life Cut Short

This beautiful boy wandered away from home...RIP Michael.

I’ve been told I’ve been “too dark” lately—writing too frequently about autistic children who’ve been terribly abused or of those who have wandered away with heartbreaking endings.  I write about these children to make others aware of autism, how difficult it can be for those suffering from it, and the stress families are under. 
In the vein of writing more neutral posts, I resisted writing about the horrific end to Alex Spourdalakis’ life, the 14 year old autistic boy who suffered from painful gastrointestinal disease who could not get proper medical treatment.  I didn’t write about the 11 year-old autistic girl who was tased by the police when she didn’t stop walking when police called her name.  And there have been so many autistic children who’ve gone missing this year, but I’ve suppressed the urge to write about each of them.

But not today. Today police found 7 year-old Michael Kingsbury dead in a car not far from his home.  He’d gone missing yesterday morning and it has been very hot on the East Coast.  News reports said Michael dropped a light fixture out his bedroom window where it shattered on the ground below.  Michael’s mother said he went after it, exiting out a back door that opens from his bedroom and walking down a metal stairway. She saw him walk toward the back alley and yelled out to him, but by the time she reached the courtyard her son was gone, wearing only a pull-up. 
Michael walked down a staircase like this one and quickly disappeared.
I was transfixed by this story and checked the news every hour or so to see if Michael had been found safely.  I felt a punch to the gut when I read the outcome.  Michael was African American, but looked like Ryan--at least he reminded me of Ryan. The photo they released of him showed him looking very much like autistic kids do in pictures--expressionless eyes with mouth half open...the way Ryan looks when I go to take his picture. He doesn't look that way in person, well, not usually, but when he sees the camera he becomes devoid of personality. But I know better. He's a mischievous little imp and I adore the living daylights out of him. 

I know this mother must be grief-stricken and second-guessing herself.  I know how quickly a child can disappear and how the fear when it happens with an autistic child is intensified because many of these children are non-verbal and do not respond to their names being called.  I’m very aware of the completely helpless feeling you have as you hope your child is safe as you frantically search your surroundings.

I know when the public reads what happened to Michael, they’ll pass judgment on his mother, saying she didn’t watch him closely enough, that she was neglectful.  All the facts of this case aren’t known yet, but it is simply impossible to watch a child 24- 7 without pause.  Parents of autistic children are human—they need to use the bathroom, prepare meals for their families, attend to their other children, or even answer the phone.  
People with “normal” children have no idea what life is like with an autistic child.  Ryan is a joy, but I never truly feel relaxed.  I am always worried about what he’ll do or if he’ll try to slip out—and he is quiet.  The ingenuity autistic kids display in making their escapes is both awe-inspiring and frightening.  
Autism parents are all too familiar with this...
I hope one day those people who feel perfectly justified in passing their judgmental looks when an autistic child is having a meltdown in public with a parent right beside them would show this same level of concern when they see a young child, heading off unattended.  Michael was 7 years old, walking outside with only a pull-up on and no one noticed or thought to intercept him or call police?  Seeing a 7 year-old wearing a diaper should alert even a casual observer that this is not a typical kid. 

In several stories I’ve read of autistic children who’ve eloped and drowned, witnesses have reported seeing them heading toward bodies of water or walking along the beach, yet did nothing to stop these children. 
Get a clue--if you see a vulnerable child wandering, call 911!
There are “If you see something, say something” campaigns to combat the unlikely event of a terrorist attack, yet there is nothing similar in place that just might save the life of an autistic child unable to comprehend the danger he or she is in.

With the prevalence of autism increasing at an alarming rate, isn’t it time for an all-out Public Service Announcement (PSA) warning of the risk of elopement in autistic children, and what should be done if a child is seen wandering?
This is your brain on drugs...
Hundreds of times I’ve seen the PSA of the egg frying while being simultaneously warned, “This is your brain on drugs”.  Why not a “This is your brain with autism” ad warning of the dangers our children face and what a humane society can do to help?

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