Every night before Karl and I go to bed, we lock up the house. We have a lock at the top of the front door that the kids can’t reach. We lock that. We close the gate to the kitchen and double lock the door to the backyard. We have child locks on all the doors to the rooms (which Mara can now get off). Mara likes to wake up during the night and wander around, so, just in case, I scan everything that she might get hurt on. We sleep with the door to our bedroom open. I didn’t used to be a light sleeper, but I wake up every time my children cough. I watch Mara like a hawk. If she is ever out of my sight for more than a minute I go find her to see what she is doing. Karl and I joke that if one of us asks the other to go see what Mara is up to, the next words we will hear are “Get Down!” She is often found standing on top of Stella’s very tall dresser (which is thankfully bolted to the wall), or her headboard about to dive off on to her bed. She’s a climber.
Over the past couple of weeks I have read two heartbreaking stories about kids with autism wandering from their families. Both of the children were later found in bodies of water. It’s terrifying. I can understand how people quickly jump to judge these parents. How could they let this happen? They need to watch them more carefully! Like many things in parenting, it is easy for an outsider to say these things. The truth is, though, that you have no idea until you live it. I am confident that these parents did all they could to protect their kids. I know we do.
A few months back, Karl was working from home. Stella was asleep and Mara was playing. I asked Karl to listen for her from the office while I walked down to the bus stop to get Reese. As I came back down the street with Reese, Mara was walking toward us. Karl was still inside. He had no idea that she left. That night he went to Home Depot and bought a lock for the top of the door that she can’t reach.
A couple weeks ago we were at a family gathering. The adults were all in the backyard. The kids were going in and out playing upstairs. Mara had been interested in the toys that were up there all afternoon. She walked in the house on her own and I assumed she was going back upstairs. A few minutes later my brother, thankfully, walked in and found her headed out the front door. The girl is an escape artist. Many kids on the spectrum are. As hard as we try to protect her, accidents can and do happen.
We went camping with some friends last weekend. I was nervous because we were camping at the lake, but Karl and I took turns not letting her out of our sight. We had it under control. Early in the weekend Karl was putting up the tent and I was organizing our gear. I was watching Mara…like a hawk. A moment later I looked up and I couldn’t find her. It seemed like a long time passed when it was probably more like 20 seconds that she was missing. Our friend spotted her at the campsite across from us (closer to the water) with another family. She just wanted to see what kind of snacks they had. There were other kids and a dog there. Karl ran across and quickly grabbed her. The situation was so surreal at the time. It wasn’t until later that I realized just how terrible it could have turned out. It’s enough to make me want to stay in the house all the time.
If Mara ever really got lost, she would not be able to ask for help. She knows what her name is and we are working on her knowing our first names, her phone number, etc, but she is a long way from being able to go up to a store clerk and say, “I can’t find my mom.” There is no easy solution. As hard as I try, I cannot watch her every second of every day. It’s just not possible. I am about to order her a bracelet (wish me luck getting her to keep it on) from Road ID. I haven’t decided what to put on it yet, but it seems like a good idea to take a few extra precautionary steps. We are also taking swimming lessons this summer. I don’t really know what else I can do except lie awake and worry that someday we could be as heartbroken as the other families I’ve been reading about.