When I was a kid, my aunt, uncle, and cousins from West Virginia would come to visit us every summer. My family eagerly anticipated these annual get-togethers, which included trips to the museums and zoos in Chicago and the Indiana beaches of Lake Michigan. For one outing, we went to a private beach where there were no lifeguards, and flotation devices such as rafts and inflatable rings were not prohibited, as they were at the state park. My cousin, who was probably about eight years old at the time, was happily floating along in her brightly-colored inflatable ring when the waves began pushing her out further in the lake and into water that was over her head. Since none of the adults or the kids were good swimmers, this was a potentially dangerous situation. As I recall, every time that someone reached for her to pull her back closer to the shore, she seemed to move further away. Fortunately, my uncle was able to grab her and bring her back to safety, and we then understood why inflatable toys were not allowed in the lake. For years, my aunt had nightmares about this incident in which she kept reaching for my cousin as she gradually bobbed away, pulled by the strong forces of the water.
After becoming a parent myself and especially after Alex’s autism diagnosis, I fully understood my aunt’s fears that haunted her dreams. As parents, we try to protect our children from dangers real and imagined, and the terror that something might allow them to drift away from us into deep waters makes us struggle to control every situation that might harm them. My sister’s daughter showed great insight for a child by commenting once that her mother would like to live in “Pillow Land,” where she could wrap her children in pillows to protect them from anything that could hurt them. With Alex, we not only have the typical dangers that worry us, but we also have the added concerns because of his communication and social skill issues. When we call him, he doesn’t always answer or come to us. If he were separated from us in a crowd (although highly unlikely because Ed and I keep close tabs and sometimes a “death grip” on him), I’m not certain that he would know how to ask for help. Moreover, he doesn’t seem to have an awareness of moving cars that could hit him in a parking lot, so Ed and I continually remind our six-foot-tall son, as most parents do with toddlers, “Wait! Watch for cars!” Autism is that natural force that could potentially pull him, much like the unpredictable waters of the lake, into situations where he would be over his head and cast adrift.
Aside from the physical dangers that we must constantly assess and prevent Alex from venturing near, Ed and I must also keep Alex from wandering into his own world, where he separates himself from us and everyone else. In that world, he could lapse into obsessions about numbers or anxiety about fears that seem irrational to most people but are very real to him, and therefore, to us. Lately, as he has been choosing to spend more time alone, we wonder if this is a natural progression of maturity or a warning sign that he is becoming less socially interactive, which would be a step backward in his progress. On one hand, we’re pleased when he can entertain himself by reading, playing video games, or working on the computer, but on the other hand, we don’t want him to lose the skills he has gained in social interaction. When we sense he is drifting away aimlessly, we pull him back where we can reach him, engaging him in conversation and shared activities. Even though Alex sometimes acts annoyed that we interrupt his alone time, we need to make sure that we can always still get to him. Until we are certain that Alex can handle himself safely and socially, Ed and I will continue to keep him close, making sure that we are always there to guide and protect him.
“When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” Isaiah 43:2-3