A Running Fear

Yeah. He’s a runner.

That phrase, to the friend of a special needs parent, means exactly what it says. The child likes to run and it can usually be pretty hard to prevent it.

To a special needs parent, that phrase can be terrifying. It seeps into your head and shapes how you behave when you’re with your child in public. It makes your stomach turn when you read a news story about a missing child on the Autism spectrum. It becomes an extra item on the parent/guardian survival checklist.

The magnitude of that is huge. Imagine adding something to a list that includes food and shelter. While some might be quick to suggest that parents already watch their children in public to keep them safe, this is incredibly different. Sure, a six year old without special needs might want to wander into the next aisle at Target. This isn’t that. This is a six year old determined on darting into the street without warning and throwing a tantrum when they’re stopped.

That’s the terrifying part.

run1When he was younger, all my son wanted to do was run. Sometimes I would take him to the local schoolyard and let him loose. His face would beam with excitement as he’d sprint across the field, occasionally glancing back at me as if to say, “Holy cow. Is he really letting me do this?!”

That need to dash away carried over into other aspects of his life too, though. Walking from the school bus and back into the house became a horrific game of goalie. The moment you’d let your guard down, he would take off across the yard. The next thing you know, you’re tackling a preschooler on your front lawn while angry old Agnes next door watches like it’s WrestleMania.

As he’s gotten older, his will to dart away has died down to an extent. Of course, like most of our milestones, figuring out when that changed took some trial and error. It was a lesson I learned at Gamestop and it makes me laugh when I think back now. At the time, though, there didn’t seem to be much humor in it.

I had only stopped into the video game store for a moment to make a return and Lucas, who was about four at the time, was in my arms. Knowing how fast it would be, I figured I could just carry him for the duration. However, his struggle to break free was becoming increasingly difficult while trying to hold a conversation about Power Player Reward Points. Something in my brain said, “Just put him down. It will be fine. You worry too much.” So I did.

Now, have you ever seen those old time silent movies where someone unveils a giant convoluted flying machine to an excited crowd, gets in, and immediately crashes in a ball of flames?

This was that.

His feet were running like a cartoon character before I even placed them on the ground and, in less than two seconds, he bolted face-first into the wall of Xbox 360 games.

I let out a sigh and turned to the cashier, who was watching the scene just like Agnes. Casually I strolled over, gave Lucas a hug, and walked out with him hand-in-hand. He didn’t cry because he’s pretty bad-ass, but I opted to leave and save the return for another day.

I beat myself up about that for a while. I saw it as my fault for not recognizing his capabilities at the time. Years later, I know that what I did was completely right. Had it not been for moments like that, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

Today, I can let my son out of the car in our driveway and tell him to walk to the front door on his own. It’s less than ten feet, but it’s a mile from where we’ve come. Of course, it’s more about his independence than any sort of practicality. I fix my gaze on him with each step and it ends up taking more of my attention than just walking him there myself. But this isn’t about saving time. It’s about his personal victories. Nine times out of ten, it goes off without a hitch. That one time is always right around the corner, though, and I’m keenly aware of it.

The fact of the matter is that, despite understanding the rules a bit better, Lucas still loves to run. He’s the only person I know who has turned watching TV into a full body cardio session as he dashes all over the house. He’ll even come running in to find me, my wife, or his sister in other rooms just to gives us kisses or wave hello. Without warning, he’s gone quicker than he arrived. He’s like the little Batman of our house.

That’s the reason why I am how I am today. Sure, I could look at the fact that he’s able to walk from the car to our house as a major achievement. I could wipe my hands of worry and move on. After all, Lucas hardly ever tries to run away anymore. He only does it once in a while.

Yeah. That once in a while is where the terror lies. Whatever the chances of my non-verbal son sprinting away into certain danger may be – they’re too high. I know that. People around me at family gatherings and parties also know that too. It’s hard to miss my focused security surveillance on all his movements. I’ve learned to watch him like a hawk and prepared to fly at him if the need arises.

So if we’re talking at a barbecue or pool party and I can’t stop staring over your shoulder at my son, who seems to be sitting quietly, please don’t be offended. I’m totally listening. I’m also ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice if my kid needs me to protect him. I’m a parent. Special needs or not, it’s what we do.