My autistic son vanishes (again)

When Mike wanders off, there's no telling where he'll wind up. I never know why he goes -- or when he'll come back

Topics: Autism, Family, Fatherhood, Life stories, Parenting,

My autistic son vanishes (again)

Last fall, Doc approached me about building a fence between our two properties on Woolf Avenue in Iowa City. “I had two sticks,” said Doc, angrily. “Walking sticks. They were right here. And now I can’t find them. I don’t mind telling you, I think your kid took them.”

“Which kid?” I said.

“You know which kid,” said Doc. “Your mentally retarded kid, Mike.”

“Yeah?” I said.

“And I think,” Doc went on, “there should be a fence. Right here. Along here. You should build it. Because I just can’t do it anymore.”

“What kind of fence?” I said.

“I don’t care,” said Doc. “You just need to get it done! Chain-link. Picket. I don’t care! Just a fence. That will stop him.”

I thought about it for a few beats. I had just completed a 6-foot picket fence around my backyard. I thought this would contain my 11-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with what they call “severe and profound” mental retardation and autism. Mike was happy in the fenced-in backyard. For about a week. But then he began to search for ways to escape. And he found them. Through the house, through the garage and out. Simple enough. To actually contain him, we would need to watch him closely every minute of every day and night.

“OK,” I said to Doc. “Go ahead.”

“Pardon?” said Doc.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Build it. Build the fence. I think it’s a good idea.”

The second fence never was built. Because of this, while I’m working in the backyard, laying out some sections of plastic tarp near the foundation in order to stop the never-ending rain from finding its way into our cellar and, simultaneously, listening to the Iowa football game broadcast on AM 800, I’m able to walk from our backyard, between the scrubby bushes, to Doc’s back door. I peer around the yard.

“What’s going on?” says Doc, appearing at the screen door.

“Nothing,” I say.

“What are you looking for?” he says.

“Mike,” I say.

Doc frowns. “Lost him again, huh?” he says. He seems concerned, but I can’t help thinking he also seems satisfied.

“Yeah,” I say.



I walk toward the street. I was with Mike just a minute ago. He was right next to me. I had begun raking some muck over the strips of plastic to hold it down. I had only begun to rake when I realized that I hadn’t heard Mike for a few minutes. Iowa had just scored in the third quarter, but I wasn’t listening to the game anymore and Mike was gone. I checked the house first, shouting as I ran through the rooms. “Mike! Mike! Michael! Mike!” Sometimes, even if you’re shouting, he won’t answer. So you can’t breeze through too quickly. You need to look in some strange places. “Mike! Michael!” Then I checked Doc’s yard. I’m running back toward the back of our garage when, through the open garage door, I see my daughter, Lucy, gliding up the driveway on her scooter. “Seen Mike?” I shout. “No,” she shouts. “He gone?” “Yep,” I say.

Lucy’s closer now. She can tell I’m frightened. When Mike runs away, Lucy knows, he might be anywhere. Most times, when a kid goes missing, you can guess at places he might go. Places he likes. Or places you go on walks. But you can’t do that with Mike. Sometimes, he just walks and walks, head down, wiggling a piece of string or a belt or a stick, and he just keeps walking.

“Where’s Mom?” she says. “Mom’s at work,” I say. Lucy frowns. “I’ll go this way,” I say, pointing toward the band field out near Park Street. “And you go that way.” I point toward Carver Hawkeye Arena. “OK,” says Lucy, pointing her scooter down Woolf toward the stadium, where 70,000 people are preparing to spill out onto the streets and inundate the small town of Iowa City. Budweiser beer. Thirty-foot-long campers. Drinking games. People shouting. Staggering. Sad or happy. Black-and-gold Hawkeye people. Pouring out. Michael will drown in a crowd like that. The Hawkeye fans will inundate everything.

“Lucy,” I shout, “get your phone! If you find him, call me. If the game gets out, come home. If I find him, I’ll call you.” “OK,” she shouts, dropping her scooter and running for her room. I ride one of the boy’s bikes down River toward Rocky Shore, shouting, “Mike! Mike!” People stare at me. People in cars. People dressed in black and gold slickers. “Mike! Michael!”

“Do you need help?” shouts one man, a beefy guy in Oakley sunglasses and a Hawkeye baseball cap.

“I lost my kid,” I shout.

“What does he look like?”

“About this high. Brown, curly hair. Orange shirt. Ten years old. He’s autistic.”

The man instructs his wife and two children to start looking for my son. We spread out. “Mike!” we shout. I reach Rocky Shore and then circle around and come up Lexington. “Mike! Mike!”

Last time he ran away, I happened to see him climbing into a little red car two houses down. One time, on vacation in North Carolina, I found him in someone’s driveway, a mile or so from our condo, red-faced and frightened, wiggling his belt. That was the worst time. He was gone for almost an hour. Everyone on the beach was looking for him.

I ride down River and up Richards and then back to the band practice field down on Park and then back to River again. I’m on the phone with the police dispatcher when Lucy beeps in. “Wait a minute,” I say to the dispatcher. “That might be about Mike. I’ll be right back.”

“We found him,” says Lucy.

“You did?” I say, on the edge of tears. “Where?”

“Hello,” says another voice on the phone. “I’m sorry. I’m Helen. I’m Maureen’s sister. I was at a cookout about six houses down from your place and I saw Michael. So I brought him to your place.”

“I’m right around the corner,” I say. “I’ll be right there. Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m sorry.”

I shout to the beefy guy in the Oakleys as I pedal by. “We found him!” I shout. “Thank you!” And I give him a big thumbs-up. He smiles and waves, genuinely happy. He calls to his family. “Hey,” he shouts, “he found his son!”

Five or six concerned-looking people are gathered in my driveway. “Thank you,” I say, tears coming. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” says the woman I’m guessing to be Helen. “Everything’s fine.”

“I hope it’s OK,” says a handsome young man, “but he ate a hot dog.”

I laugh. “He stole one, didn’t he?” I say.

Everyone laughs.

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s fine, though. I just hope it’s OK.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

I find Mike on the back screened-in porch. He’s covering his mouth, afraid that something bad is going to happen now. That I might shout at him. I kneel down. I want to hug him, but I can tell he won’t let me. “Mike,” I say. Mike continues to cover his mouth, frightened. “Mike, you can’t run away like that. That’s not good. You can’t do that.” Mike seems relieved that I’m not shouting. I give him a hug. Mike twists away. “Go up to your room,” I say, exhausted. “That’s a punishment,” I say. “You can’t run away. OK? You need to stay here. OK?” Mike heads for his room. “Wait a minute!” I shout. “Take those shoes off. Come here. Come here. Sit down, please.” Mike sits on the stoop while I pull his muddy shoes off. “Now go on,” I say.

Beautiful people fill the streets. Hawkeye shirts and hats. Black and gold people. People who have hooked their wagons to the Hawkeye star. Sometimes hope fills the places where work is not, where responsibility is not, where the trees bud and blossom, and the damp wind begins to take on the odor of hot coffee and beer and brats cooking on a grill.

Mike heads for his room. He is unable to tell me what happened on his wild adventure. What he might have thought about. What he stole and ate. Who brought him home. Why he left. “He gets bored,” that’s what Deb says, later at night. “He just gets bored. Remember that. That’s why he acts that way.” Maybe it’s more than Mike can stand. Another day in the backyard. With his belt. And the muddy patches of earth. It’s more than he can stand. It’s only fair, isn’t it? That, for a while, someone might kneel down and look in his eyes and tell him something. “You can’t run away like that.” Or, “Go up to your room.” It’s only fair, isn’t it? To go away. And then to come back again. These simple things that everyone does. Isn’t this what people do? They come. And then they go away. And then they come again.

Joe Blair is a pipe fitter who lives in Iowa with his wife and four children. This essay is adapted from his recently released memoir, "By the Iowa Sea."

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