It had only been ten minutes at the most, maybe fifteen since I last saw him. I had looked outside the window as I was finishing cleaning the kitchen and had seen him playing in the yard. Then I had sat down at the table and I swore I could still hear him just a few minutes ago. Then JC came upstairs and asked, “Where’s AJ?” I looked outside and couldn’t see him. “He must have gone around the corner of the house,” I replied, but I wasn’t worried. While there was no fence on that side, there was a lot of tall brush that would be hard to get through. Except that volunteers from the church had just come to do landscaping that day and had cut most of the brush down.
AJ was not there. We started calling his name as JC went over the side of the brush and into the front. I checked all through the yard and then went inside. Maybe he had come in while I was distracted? I looked through the entire house, then went downstairs and into the garage. No sound, no sight of him. I came back upstairs and out the sliding door. Nothing. I called over to our church volunteers and asked if they had seen him, and they had not. Then I pleaded with them to help us look, as I saw my husband begin to run down the side street in front of the house. They seemed a little baffled that we were so frantic, as they were certain he couldn't have gone far. I grabbed my phone and called 911 to report that my son was missing.
While on the phone, I searched the entire house again as the operator asked me to check under all the beds and closets. The operator stayed on the phone with me until an officer pulled up in front. I shared the picture of my son with the officer and a description of what he was wearing. Now some neighbors walking on the street heard us and offered to help search for our son. I had been fairly calm, just certain he was around the corner until I realized that ten, maybe fifteen more minutes had now passed. The officer radioed the description of our son and that he was non-communicative. And just as a second officer pulled up, JC walked up the street, carrying our shoeless boy.
The officer was calm and happy for us, and told us we did the right thing. So many children with autism wander and many are drawn to water (and our son does love to play in water if he can find it), especially ponds, steams, and swimming pools. My husband had found AJ just down the street playing in the backyard of a stranger’s house. JC would not have seen him had AJ not just stepped off the back porch for a moment and gone back up the neighbor’s steps. AJ had a scrape on his knee, probably from falling while jumping over the side of the yard onto the concrete, and since he could not get back up the way he came, had probably just wandered down and across our busy main street by our home into another backyard. He was not worried, nor was he crying, nor was he afraid. It was just another yard.
It was almost six months later when I connected our story of losing AJ for an afternoon to another, familiar story. Imagine a mother and father traveling with their extended family and neighbors, doing something they have done every year around the holidays. They know their son is a bit different, but he’s still a kid just like other kids. They are on the return trip home and it hasn’t been that long—only a day’s journey, when they realize they can’t remember the last time they saw him. Didn’t we see him at lunch? Or was that breakfast? Wasn’t he with his cousin? Or was he with the other cousin? The parents begin to be worried, and start looking among all their families and friends and realize their son is not with them. They head back to the city and search for him. The news starts to spread among their friends in the city and people are out looking for their little boy, but no one can find him. Another day passes, then two, then three. Then finally, they go into the temple and there he is, sitting on the ground with the teachers, listening and asking questions. It was just another day. He wasn’t worried, nor was he crying, nor was he afraid. Instead, he asks his parents, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Sometimes we imagine that Joseph and Mary must have been angry and upset in this moment. I wonder if they were just so glad they found him. As you might understand, this story resonates with me and other parents of children with autism. While it is true all children have a natural curiosity and may wander a bit, children with autism often do not understand boundaries and safety. They do not understand that going someplace that is unknown may not be safe, because what they have known is safe. They may not look back for a parent or guardian to be close by. And they may not know that they need to ask for help, nor be able to communicate that need effectively to others.
April is Autism Awareness Month and today, April 2nd, is World Autism Day. The numbers are staggering: here in the United States, the CDC just raised the rate to 1 out of 68 children, and 1 out of 45 boys are diagnosed with autism. We do not know exactly why the rates are increasing nor why is it so prevalent in boys but there are girls also diagnosed with autism.
There is probably someone in your church who has a friend with autism, or a grandchild with autism, or they themselves may have autism. We as the church generally have not done a great job of including and welcoming those on the autism spectrum. We have turned around and shushed children who cannot sit still or be quiet, and many children on the autism spectrum have difficulty sitting still or make spontaneous noises. We have told parents that they cannot leave their children in the nursery because they are too old or too big, and we have told them they cannot attend Sunday school because they are still not toilet trained and are a distraction for the other children and teachers. We have not included people with autism, or with other disabilities in general, into the life of the church beyond a general welcome to worship, and even then we may not feel entirely welcome.
In our congregation, as people have come to know AJ, they also know that he likes to head out the back door. On occasion I have to run from the front of the church, but most of the time someone is keeping their eye on the stairs or the back door now. AJ likes to explore and wander, but now the church recognizes him as one of their own, and they do their part to help.
We see Jesus welcoming the children when the disciples wanted to send them away. We see Jesus embracing the ill and disabled when the disciples wanted to ignore them. We see Jesus turning to those who cried out to him when the disciples wanted him to move along quickly.
But when I look to Jesus, I also see our humanity reflected in him. I see someone who loves, who grieves, who prays, who wonders, and who wanders. I see Jesus as a child similar to my own. I see my son’s autism reflected in Jesus. For Autism Awareness month, let us all see Jesus reflected in the children around us, and let us learn to welcome them and to help keep them safe and loved.