I hung up the phone from a conversation with a friend and walked into the living room. I saw my infant daughter, Alina, asleep in her bassinet, and smiled. But wait a minute—where was Ben, my three-year-old ? Hadn’t he been with Alina in the living room just moments before? How long had I been on the phone?
“Ben?” I called out hopefully. No answer. I walked through the first floor, searching. My heart began to pound. “BenBen? BenBen? Ben, honey, where are you, sweetheart?” I could hear the anxiety in my voice. I knew my hollering was useless; Ben never answered me, even when he was right in front of me. But where could he be?
I ran upstairs, looked in his room, then in ours, and then in the bath rooms. He was nowhere to be found. I ran downstairs again, through the kitchen. I ran into the living room to check on Alina, who was still asleep, blissfully unaware of her mother’s hysteria. I ran outside, into the front yard. “BENJAMIN? WHERE ARE YOU? BENBEN? ANSWER MOMMY!”
By now I was crying, tears streaming down my face. I was in a state of utter terror, my mind filled with horrible vision of children stolen away from right under their parents’ noses, terrible images of kidnappers and perpetrators and everything I’d ever seen on television. I raced around to the back of the house. He wasn’t there. I ran back inside, called the police, and then called my husband. I ran out into the front yard again. I screamed Ben’s name over and over again. No one came. I couldn’t breathe. I felt as if my world were ending.
Then I saw him. He was in the next door neighbor’s yard, no more than a few hundred feet away. He had sneaked through the fence and was playing on their slide. He had been there the whole time, deaf to my screams, insensible to my hysterical, sobbing pleas, oblivious to all but himself and his own experience. He went up and down the slide, never registering my voice, my terror, or more pain. All of that was irrelevant. He was on his slide.
My relief was intense, but so, too, was my rage. How could he have put me through that? Why didn’t he respond to my cries? Didn’t he care that his own mother was in pain? How could he ignore me that way? Then I began to berate myself. How could I have let him get outside? What if he had really been taken from me? What kind of mother was I?
It took me years to discover that I was asking the wrong questions. Ben’s behavior wasn’t about me. He wasn’t ignoring me. Th problem was not in me. It took our family several more years of pain, turmoil, and confusion to finally understand:
Ben had autism.
(From the Introduction to my book, UNLOCKED: A Family Emerging from the Shadows of Autism, Skyhorse Press, March 2015.)