Protecting our special kids

My heart breaks for Katrina Kingsbury, the mother of 7-year-old Michael Kingsbury, who was found lifeless this month in a car near his home in the District’s Trinidad neighborhood. Michael had autism.

Efforts to protect children, especially a child with autism, need to begin long before a child disappears. Wandering, otherwise known as “elopement,” is extremely common among those with autism, and it takes a community to keep a child safe in the long term.

Seven years ago, on a warm summer day, my own 7-year-old son with autism vanished. Thomas lifted the deadbolt and walked out our front door. When I discovered that he was missing, I quickly checked the neighbors’ yards and looked behind their fences, moving as fast as I could. I ran through all the rooms in our house and dispatched my older son to scour the neighborhood on his bicycle. I told him, “Check all of the swimming pools in the neighborhood,” as Thomas loved water.

I called my husband to ask him to help search for Thomas. He went out on bicycle, too. I asked neighbors to look for Thomas. When my husband and son both reported that Thomas was nowhere to be found, I knew it was time to call the police. It was as if Thomas had vanished into thin air.

The police first searched the attic, something I had not done. They searched cabinets in my garage, also something I had not done. They went behind the closed gates of my neighbor’s yard and lifted up a tarp; they looked for large holes in the ground, behind the wood stacks and in the trees. They moved methodically, which seemed much too slow.

I knew Thomas’s habits and interests so well, I should have been able to find him.

Finally, a policeman asked me to show him what Thomas typically did when he would walk out the front door. He would go a short way down the front walk and turn to the left. As the policemen and I walked in what I thought would be Thomas’s footpath, we turned the corner. One policeman spotted a young boy a block away standing on the sidewalk, twirling something. He asked if that was my son. It was.

Thomas had been “swimming” in a neighbor’s backyard pool three blocks away. He crossed two streets to get to it. He walked right through an open gate and proceeded to the pool. Thomas exited the same open gate.

When we found him, Thomas was twirling his underwear, which he had failed to put on before his shorts, contemplating crossing the street again.

Two days later, he and I went past the house where he had been “swimming.” The gate was still open. Another neighbor has only a three-foot fence around her pool.

A child with autism is a full-time responsibility. You are never “off-duty.” After Thomas’s wandering “episode,” we installed a chain at the top of the door and considered a GPS-like device for him to wear in case he got “lost” again.

Thomas is now 14, and he doesn’t seem as likely to wander beyond our front yard as he once did, but I still never let him out of my sight. Think of having a toddler for 20 years or so. That’s why it takes a community to help us keep our special children safe. First, our neighbors should know our children so that they can notify someone if they see a special child walking down the street. Also, children with autism need to be present in the community — in the grocery store, in our churches and at the swimming pools. One in 54 boys has autism, but I don’t see these children. Where are they?

Ironically, my biggest fear for Thomas, as I see him growing into a tall, handsome young man, is of the police, the same force that helped me find Thomas on that fearful day when he was a cute little 7-year-old. Our law enforcement does not have proper training to identify someone who has autism or is nonverbal. There is so much to learn and a lot of work to be done.

Finally, those of us with a friend or family member with autism are fortunate. It is through Thomas that I have learned to become a more patient mother than I ever would have been otherwise. It is because of Thomas that I have learned to appreciate that life is precious.

Our children, neighbors and friends with special needs, even the most complicated cognitive needs, have a great deal to teach us, if we will take the time to pay attention.

I’ve no doubt that Michael Kingsbury will be missed by his mother, sister, teachers, classmates — by anyone who knew him. I am sure, even without having known him, that Michael had a great deal to give.

Joan Beachner Shannon, Alexandria