On Wednesday, May 15th the body of Mikaela Lynch was found in the Cache Creek near her parents' vacation home.
My heart is heavy and I feel devastated by this loss. I know how easily it could have been my own son or that of a friend.
Godspeed sweet girl.
I am disgusted by the influx of media reports concerning nine year-old autistic child, Mikaela Lynch, of Clearlake, CA. Mikaela disappeared from her family's yard on Sunday, May 12th while playing outside with her family. Mikaela has a severe form of autism and is nonverbal and requires constant supervision. She wears diapers and likes taking her clothing off. What we know for certain about Mikaela's disappearance ends right there. However, those in the media are all too quick to make assumptions and place blame upon her parents for being "incompetent" and "neglectful".
When I first heard about Mikaela's disappearance the first thing that struck me was how similar she sounds to my younger son, Noah. Noah has very limited verbal abilities, he wears diapers, loves being outside and spends the majority of his time without clothing on his body. He is attracted to water, loves trampolines and running. I do not doubt for a second that if given the chance he would run away from the safety of his home or his school if something that interested him caught his eye.
I believe it because I have seen it happen time and time again.
Our children do not have the same fears as most their age. They do not see a swimming pool and remember to put on their life jacket or floaties. They do not see a busy street filled with cars and trucks and worry about stopping on the curb to wait for them to pass. They absolutely do not understand the need to tell a parent before they leave the house. They just go.
Individuals with more severe forms of autism do not understand the danger of doing these things. To them they see a lake and think of the way it feels cool on their skin and how much they love to splash and play in the bathtub water at home. They see the road in front of their house and they remember that across the street from it is the playground with the swings and sliding boards. They fiddle with the lock on the front door long enough that they figure out how to unlock it and venture outside. This is why parents like myself have to be extra vigilant in keeping our children safe.
Unfortunately, we can't be everywhere.
Ask any parent of a child with special needs and I would wager more than half of them have experienced their child wandering away from home, school, or another public place. Ask them how many times it has happened and I would once again bet it has happened more than once.
Are these children wandering because their parents are incompetent or neglectful?
I would argue they are not.
All parents do their best to protect their children. In our home we have locks on our doors and windows. In the boys' bedroom we have even added thin particle board over the windows after Noah began climbing high into them and I feared the window would break and he would fall over three stories onto cement below. While the boys are at school I make surprise visits to their classrooms and
ensure the appropriate ratio of teacher and aides to students is as it
should be. When we are in public places I keep my hands on each of their
wrists as we move about and I do not go anywhere without a second adult
if I fear it may be too crowded for us to attend safely.
However, I know all too well my limits and I have witnessed their testing.
Two years ago my older son, Sam, wandered away from his school. Afterwards it was determined that two 1:1 aides thought he was with the other. It was not until a teacher found him in a supply closet on the far end of the school that anyone knew he was gone from his classroom. My eight year-old autistic son was able to elude two specially trained aides, his own special needs teacher, and a school full of students, other educators, and administrators.
Similarly, when Sam was three years-old he wandered away from our home in the middle of winter wearing no shoes or a coat. He undid two door locks and a door chain and walked outside while I was downstairs with his baby brother folding laundry and talking to a friend. He was found a little less than an hour later on the far end of our townhouse community trying to get inside someone's back patio door.
I would argue in both of those situations we were neither neglectful or incompetent. What we were was extremely foolish to assume a child with autism could not or would not seize an opportunity to explore their surroundings.
I pray that Mikaela Lynch is found soon both for her own sake and for that of her family who must be in agony as the hours pass without her. What they are experiencing right now is every parent's worst nightmare. To see your child's face plastered to posters and news reports and to have to steel yourself to the speculations and jeers of those who'd rather point fingers and pass judgement than do something productive like lace up shoes and join the search.
What has happened with this family could happen to any of us.
It could easily be one of my sons on that poster.