Originally posted 8/2017
My boy went missing yesterday. He went missing near water. Don’t worry. There is a happy-ish ending.
I keep reading about the ““sweet spot” of parenting in summer. This is the phenomenon where after years of hyperigilance, parents can relax at the pool because the $3000 in swim lessons have finally paid off. You are now officially the chauffeur and the loan officer but no longer also the lifeguard and babysitter. Your kids have the buddy system at the local pool just by showing up to same aged classmates and are released free from the bonds of water wings and demands barked from mom suits. The first summer a mom experiences this, she is ecstatic. I know this because I’ve spotted an alarming amount of women openly reading Fifty Shades of Gray in their lounge chairs. Maybe there is a twinge of wistful “last time”, but ultimately their palpable sigh of relief to just relax next to the pool overrides preemptive nostalgia.
I’m not here to wax poetic about the woes of the special needs parent at the pool because I have already done that and also because we too have a sweet spot. It’s just different and likely the bruised part of the banana people normally cut off. If I could cut that brown spot off I would for some things. Things like yesterday…..
We have a pass to our local water park. A2 likes spending the majority of his time in the young children’s area full of manageable water slides, spinning water wheels, hoses and a non-slip structure featuring a giant bucket on top which slowly fills up every 10 minutes and dumps gallons of water on the crowd gathering below in anticipation. A2 doesn’t mind water in his face and the bright colors and sounds–the constant movement and slow drips of water are the things of joy for him. I hate Monkey Junction. I navigate it alone, pudgy and pasty. The water is 25 degrees colder than it is in the wave pool and in order to stay close to my kid, I have to follow him through the maze of spitting water getting me wet and cold enough to use guided imagery to disassociate myself from my sensory differences. A2 is now 12 and still cannot swim which works out fine at Monkey Junction with its ankle deep water. I have attempted to entice him to follow the structure up to the far more exciting curly slide where kids closer to his age might be. This is still met with the same screech and Houdini-like limb disjointing to remove himself back to the same 4 places he prefers to stand and flap as he has every year before now.
This year, I realized his predictability was my sweet spot. Yes, I participated in his happy, flappy, water drinking glory and slid down short slides with cloudy and disturbingly salty/sweet water at the bottom. But I also let him have that time to do his thing without me trying to redirect him. I plopped down in a super-short lounge chair situated 20 feet away from his predictably favorite places and this year. I dared to open a professional journal. Ahhhhh…..the sweet spot for me. Read two sentences, see where A2 is….read two more….yep…same place….. “Ok, just like everything else…we have a modified sweet spot and here I am living the dream!” I thought to myself.
About 5 minutes into this, I looked up to see A2 was standing at the bottom of the baby slide flapping away to toddlers making tiny splashes against the yellow curved plastic. A crowd was gathering under the giant bucket….the next stop in the pattern of stimmy afternoon fun. I almost felt smug. Moments later, the bucket dropped which is normally my cue to go and join A2 and shriek in excitement with him.
Only he wasn’t there.
HE WASN’T THERE.
At first, I shielded my eyes in the late day sun. Stinker. He changed his pattern. I looked to the 3 other places.
HE WASN’T THERE.
Why had I never noticed the deeper pool near the equipment before? I have an overactive amygdala (that place in your brain responsible for fight or flight). My movements can appear more dramatic than I actually feel but my monkey and human brains caught up to one another pretty quickly.
HE WAS NOWHERE.
I breathlessly approached one of the lifeguards minding the 4th level of purgatory of Monkey Junction. “My child….he’s missing.” I spat. “He’s wearing a white swim shirt and black and neon green shorts.”
“Ok, I’ll let you know if I see him.” he said without making eye contact, though admittedly he was wearing sunglasses and was standing over a slightly less blue pool of water of toddlers. “How tall is he?”
I made the imaginary yard stick hit my shoulder on my five-foot frame. “Here.” It then occurred to me my level of concern was not commensurate with the number of feet off the ground my hand was. I looked like a histrionic helicopter parent. And then the overwhelm of panic smacked me in the face. “…he’s 12 but he is autistic and can’t communicate with people he doesn’t know…he’s non-verbal!”, neither of which are completely accurate.
How do you describe a 12-year-old’s safety concerns and the immediate nature of those concerns?
“Ok” he said again and went back to twirling his whistle.
I went to all the other lifeguards. One told me to calm down, they would take care of it.
“HOW? TELL ME THE PROTOCOL FOR STOPPING PEOPLE FROM LEAVING THE PARK WITH A CHILD WHO IS NOT THEIRS?! WHO DID YOU CALL? THIS ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH! YOU CAN’T TELL BY LOOKING AT HIM! “
Should I have not said he was 12? Should I have directed what they needed to do? Was a full 30 seconds much too long to look away from an ankle-deep pool of water guarded by four teenagers?
I was now a lost child. Pacing in my worst nightmare, rendered with ineffectual words. Is this how A2 feels all the time? Desperately trying to communicate the weight of the world to stone faced dolts who completely miss the nuance of the message?
I ran from mother to mother begging for extra eyes in the way only a mother sees. I was too afraid to run onto the structure for fear he would walk out past me unnoticed. One mother ran around the structure all the way to the top out of view, where she found A2 hooting and clapping to the older children releasing themselves down that same curly slide he refused to even approach the gangplank with the safety of an adult.
He clearly was not distressed as he left the play structure with her as she brought him to me….yet more evidence of my rightful concern. He would have left the play area with Jack the Ripper if he was asked nicely. He rates highly on instructional control measures at school. We have trained him to be compliant. No matter what. I have never felt so nauseated and so relieved all at the same time.
Initially, when I sat down to tell this story it was with the intent on providing information on what to do if your child goes missing. But 1200 words later it really felt more like I wanted to just tell this story of my fallibility. I have not lost my child in 12 years, but I did so for 5 horrifying minutes because I chose to look down for 30 seconds. Turns out the “sweet spot” is not something parents of certain kids get to have in the way other parents do–not even a modified version. Because those moments taken for granted might also be moments of growth. Moments of increased independence and bravery in a sneak attack of pride and relief and fear. I missed witnessing his milestone.
There is no playbook for this autism thing.
**Disclaimer: Security showed up just in time for me to tell them that the crack team of lifeguards did not find him, but a patron. While they obviously did the right thing and got security involved, the utter lack of urgency and communication was the issue. I am formally alerting the park to this concern. All’s well. Nothing to actually see here folks…