By B. Lynn Goodwin.
“Jay’s run away,” his mom told me over the phone. It was 2 a.m. and I didn’t know what to say.
I know that running away is something many 12-year-olds do, but Jay is not an average 12-year-old. He and his younger brother both have autism. At 12 he’s energetic and determined. He’s also as vulnerable and stubborn as a five-year old, and I imagined the same questions were running through his mom’s head and mine:
- What if he can’t articulate his name or his phone number?
- What if he walks up to a homeless encampment and says, “Hi” in that open, friendly way he has with strangers?
- What if a train comes down the tracks and he doesn’t get off in time?
- What if a predator or psychopath snatches him?
“I called the police two hours ago,” his mom said. I pushed the speaker button so my husband, who is her pastor, could hear. “They have a search helicopter out looking and a rescue dog following his scent. He’s on the railroad tracks, but the dog lost his scent in Pinole.”
I imagined tall, blond Jay making his way down the tracks in the flip-flops he always wears.
- Did he have a flashlight?
- Did he have food?
- Did he have a plan?
We love Jay, and we look out for his brother and him, but when a young man with a teenager’s body and a child’s mind leaves home in the middle of the night, fears flood up.
After we hung up, my husband, Richard turned on the light and said, “I really should go up there.”
I filled his thermos and said, “Call me as soon as you hear anything.” I was alone with nothing to do but pet the dog and worry.
My gut instinct told me Jay was alive and not alone. I was counting on God to protect him. His mom does everything in her power to keep him safe, but all people have minds of their own, and that includes those with autism and other developmental delays.
Two hours later Richard called to say that the police found Jay on the tracks in Martinez with his tent and his fishing pole. He was home, unharmed, eating the Chicken Taco Supreme Richard picked up.
On the following Sunday his mom explained that he hadn’t run away. Not as far as he was concerned.
He wanted to go camping. She said no, and added, “Don’t go out the front door.” So he tossed his tent and his fishing pole out of a second story window and jumped. If she wouldn’t take him, he’d go on his own. He always planned to come back.
In addition to taking the camping gear he had $27 in his pocket. He planned to buy a train ticket to Sacramento, get a cab to the campground, and return in a week or so.
How do you explain the dangers of the world to an autistic child on the verge of his teenage years? How do you keep him safe? If you have tips to offer, I’d be delighted to hear them; I’d love to pass them on.