The Wanderer

It was the wide, open back door that I noticed first.  The curtains were billowing out on the deck, in the breeze and our little orange cat was sitting outside, in the sun.

“Why is the sliding door open?” I asked my 9 year old son, who was stretched out on the couch, playing video games. And then, suddenly, I had an odd, sinking feeling. “Where is your brother?  Where is Dominic?”

Sometimes the questions come before the thoughts, sometimes my mouth works faster than my brain. This was one of those times.

“I dunno, mom.” My son said, not looking up from his video game. “In his room?”

I pounded up the stairs two at a time, hoping he was there, knowing, in the deepest part of myself, he wouldn’t be.

And of course, he wasn’t.

I hope you never experience this sensation.  The empty bed, the helpless fear, the wide open door.

I will tell you how it feels, to try to make you understand.  I hope you never really have to understand.

Here are the things that flicker through your mind when your child is missing: Where would he go? Why did he leave? 

And then, heavily and with self-hatred:

I am a horrible mother.

There was no time to sit and cry, but I wanted to bang my head against the wall until I saw stars. It was only 10 minutes, just long enough for me to wash my face, to brush my teeth and get dressed. He was just laying in my bed beside me, laughing at something I would never begin to try to understand. 

But I laughed with him, because I am his mother. Then I sent him to his room to put on some new clothes.

And he did that.

But then he walked right out the back door all alone and left the curtains billowing in the kitchen with the breeze.

My son has autism. At 11 years old, he can barely talk.  He spins in wild circles, he waves his arms in the air.  He jumps and flaps and laughs and laughs and laughs. Sometimes he turns up his closed eyes to the sky in some sort of conversation to the atmosphere, one that neither time or space or my boy seem interested in explaining to me. But he is so smart. He can read and write.  He can identify every roller coaster at Cedar Point Amusement Park by picture alone and type their complicated names into his ipad.  Raptor. Millenium Force. Top Thrill Dragster. 

Still, it took him the entire year of 5th Grade to learn to identify his siblings by name. Before that they were simply sister, brother, baby. 

Living with such lopsided disability means our lives are a complicated system of what is okay and what will nevr, ever be okay for Dominic. 

He is eleven.

Here is what “normal” eleven year olds want to do: ride their bicycles, play with their friends, beat Halo on Xbox.

Here is what Dominic wants to do: watch video of elevators on his ipad, eat cookies, tap his toy train to the beat of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

But these things are okay with me.  I am okay with it all.

I am not okay with him leaving.

It is an agreement unspoken between a mother and her child, that she will keep him safe until he understands.  Until he can keep himself safe without her. First she will lay him to sleep in the soft, sealed safety of his crib, so she can keep him away from the dangerous world.  And the mother will lock the doors of her house to keep the dangerous world away from him.

When he is three, or four, or even five, when he climbs from his crib the first time, she moves her boy into a bed without barriers. To keep him safe. And the mother and her child make an agreement together, with words simple enough for even the smallest mind can understand. We will both sleep in our rooms, I will be here, down the hall if you need me. Find me first. Do not go away from here, come and find me and I will help. 

I made these agreements. I made them with all of my children. I said these words to my boy, with the big blue eyes, and the strangely, wonderfully mechanical brain, from the moment I held him in my arms. He scrunched his eyes up and turned his face toward the sky and it seemed to me that he listened.

For 11 years my son seemed to be listening.

But the autism didn’t listen.

And since the autism lives in my son’s brain, unseen and powerful—It has a voice much louder than mine.

Go, the autism told him. And he went.

I searched the neighborhood.  My other children rode their bikes up and down the street, calling his name. Dominic! Dominic!

I went to his favorite places on our street, the trampoline behind my neighbors house.  The park halfway down the street.  I drove to the swim club where he loves to wade and jump, clutching my chest in fear that the pool fence was unlocked.  But it WAS locked and my son wasn’t there.

In fact, he was no where. And I was lost. We were both so, so lost.

So I went home, closed the heavy front door and sat on a chair on the front porch.  And with my head in my hands, I called the police.

They had found him already.  He had walked over a mile and half to the McDonalds on the main road.  He had wandered around the lobby for awhile, unable to speak, surely wanting one of his beloved Happy Meals but unknowing how to get it. The staff was so kind, they fed him hamburgers.  They called the police.  They watched him.

When I saw him I burst into heaving sobs.  He looked at me, confused as to why I was crying. The conversation between my son, the wanderer, and me, his mother, in the lobby of the Mcdonald’s—with the Police hovering, was again unspoken.

Why did you leave? You should have told me what you wanted.

The autism told me to go, mom. So I went.

You can’t just go, son.  You have to bring me with you.

But I’m 11 mom. Soon I’ll be 12. I just wanted to have a little freedom. I just wanted a happy meal.

These were true things and I couldn’t argue with something so true.

But autism, even if it is true, is not going to take my boy away from me.

So I took my boy home.  I was vigilant. I cut out STOP signs and taped them all over the walls of our house and I put alarms on every door.  We found therapists to come to our house, to work with him harder, to go deeper, to try to get through.  There are new medications, and new doctors and new hope that he will not leave, that he understands that no matter how convincing the voice of autism is, he can not leave the house alone. That no more doors will be left wide open.

For now, my son and I keep this unspoken agreement.  We speak in our language and because I am his mother, because my blood is his blood, I am louder than the autism for now.

But for now, I still sleep with my ears open wide.  I listen for the alarm sensors to go off in the night, for the sound of the front door opening.  I walk to his room before I try to sleep and touch his sleeping head.

I press my face to his and put my ear to his ear. I listen for the imperceptible voice of autism.

I wait for it to speak again to a boy that only wants what we both wish that we both could each have.

Freedom from fear.  Freedom from the voice.

And just one more night filled with restful sleep, where the agreement between us remains unbroken.










  1. Oh my gosh, I’m sitting at my desk at work crying, because I know a tiny taste of the terror and the awful feeling you described. Our Bella doesn’t wander frequently, but I can remember once that she really scared us. When she was three years old, our across-the-street neighbor showed up at our back door holding a naked Bella. He spotted her wandering down the street, knew where she lived, and brought her home. We didn’t know she was gone, or that she could even open the back gate. She only spoke in cartoon show quotes, and would never be able to tell someone where she lived. We live two blocks from a busy state road. Also, she was naked, and we live down the street from a sex offender. She still wanders a bit if she’s in public with us, and we’ve had a few other scares that lasted no more than twenty seconds. I cannot imagine feeling that feeling as long as you did. Sending you the biggest hug I can muster via the Internet.

  2. Oh my goodness Nicole that would of scared the heck out of me so I know it was so very frighting to you and for Dominic!! You are a awesome mom so never doubt your self about that ever!!! Once Dominic got to Mc Donalds and realize that you where not that there to get him his happy meal he was most likely just as scared as you where looking for him!! I am sending you the biggest hug ever!!!

    • I think you’re right Colleen. I miss the days where I could talk to you and you knew him and I knew that every single person that came into contact with him. It’s okay now, but not the same. Reading comments like this one from you remind me of how long it’s been since we sat and talked outside of my house. I miss you. <3

  3. Yes I am also sitting here with tears running down my face. I understand what you are feeling. How you have to be constantly vigilent always alert in watching and keeping your child safe. My son Brent, I would call him a runner I couldnt take my eyes off him. he would never knew. I did my best but of course I lost him a few times..for small amount of times but the terror I felt. cant describe it. Once in a major shopping complex and another time when he was three I was talking to my 5year old daughters teacher (The pre-school was fenced). and watching him at the same time. well i turned around and he was gone. Several minutes of searching found him. He was walking on the footpath outside the school parimeter near parked cars .quite a far way in a short time . not a care in the world. For Me..the relief and the guilt all at once.Yes What Janel said.I cannot imagine the feeling as long as you did. and my hugs and best wishes to you and Janel.

  4. I read this with a dread I know doesn’t even come close to what you felt that day. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until your sweet boy was found and I let it out. This is terrifying and beautiful all at once. I’m just so very glad he’s okay and home safe with you.

    • Sandy, I think you are an amazingly emotional writer—-if I could engage you in feeling with this piece, that’s the best compliment I could hope for. Thank you so much for coming over and reading the piece. I’m a super big fan. <3

  5. I have been there several times. My son is 10. It is a numbing experience, because at the moment it is happening you are angry, sad and scared for him. When he shows up you are so relieved he’s okay. And the only thing you can hope is he learns the importance of bringing you with next time.


Leave a Reply