“Before we go on our sensory hike, pair up with a classmate. Buddies, now!” Half the children dashed to stand by a friend. The other half stood waiting for an instruction that made sense.
Sam later told me, “Ms. Pair was not on the field trip, Mom. How were we supposed to pair up without her?”
Eventually, the kids were organized into partners. “Now, what I want to do here is send a teacher or parent to the bottom of the trail.” Our guide designated Mrs. Gunnels. “And once she’s down there, I want the pairs to follow her. Leave a little distance between each set so you can’t hear each other talking. Look around you. I’ve put some manmade objects on the trail, and we’ll find out how many you saw after we all get to her. Now, who wants to go first?”
Naturally, Sam volunteered.
“You do realize these kids are autistic, right?” Well, not all of them. Some have ADHD. Some have ADHD and autism. Some have other, similar, but not identical diagnoses.
The guide swiveled to look at me, “Yes?”
“This sounds like a pretty stupid idea. You can’t seriously mean to send them down that hill without supervision.”
“Mrs. Gunnells will be at the bottom,” another parent volunteered.
“We have wanderers!” Heat suffused my face as I thought about the ongoing search for Mikaela Lynch. I didn’t know they had already found her body. I still held out faint hope that she would come home alive, shaken but whole.
Did the guide, did these other parents, think that our children were immune to wandering because they are high functioning? Because they are all verbal and able to call for help?
One of the last times we lost Sam before he finally stopped escaping from us, we were biking near a lake. We had no cell service and didn’t want to leave the area when he vanished. The path forked and we each needed to explore one direction.
We spent long minutes screaming his name without getting a response. I was climbing a hill to retrieve Caroline, reach phone service, and dial 911 when Scott found him on a walking trail right beside the lake, pedaling his way back to where he thought he had left us, completely oblivious to his danger. He could not yet swim at that time.
And now, he was planning to go first down the unsupervised trail, holding hands with an equally capricious friend. He could swim, but not in track shoes. And Lake Jordan was far too close if he got distracted and followed his eyes instead of the instructions. By no means does every child who meanders away from caregivers die. Many return. However, when autistic children who have wandered away from their parents do die, 91% of them drown. Sam would not be going down that trail alone, and neither would his friends and classmates.
Although it felt like a lifetime, it was probably only a few seconds before the other teacher, Miss Hathcock, spoke up. “We have plenty of adults.” Too true. There were seventeen children and a total of twelve teachers and parents. “One of us can go with each group.”
Sam, still determined to go first, latched onto Mrs. Gunnells’ hand. Scott had Caroline and her friend. So I chose two children at random and shepherded them down the incline, redirecting them each time they appeared ready to go off course. At the bottom, I counted. The teachers did, too. All here. All safe.
But my heart thudded against my ribcage for too long, and I couldn’t pay attention to the guide’s spiel.
My heart aches for the families of Mikaela Lynch and now Owen Black and Drew Howell, all of whom wandered away from their families within the last week and drowned.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.