Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Front Page News

There is a story on the front page of today’s paper about a 13-year-old boy from New York City who was missing for eleven days. The boy was described as having “difficulty with social interaction…seemingly eccentric behavior and isolation.” Sound familiar? He has Asperger’s syndrome. After getting in trouble at school for an incomplete assignment he was afraid to go home, thinking he would be in more trouble. He spent the next week and a half riding – unseen, unnoticed – on the New York subway system. He subsisted on carefully rationed food and bottled water, and used a public restroom at a Brooklyn subway station near Coney Island.

His parents printed and distributed about 2,000 flyers with his picture; the NYC police department and Missing Persons Squad were on constant vigil; eventually the Mexican Consulate got involved in the search as well. Still, this youngster spent eleven days in the subways – unseen, unnoticed – before someone became aware of him and asked his name.

Fortunately, a happy ending: Apart from being hungry, dirty and having leg cramps, the boy was all right physically and returned to school the next week. You want to stand up and cheer that the boy with Asperger’s was clever enough to manage through what must have been a grueling and frightening ordeal. But those who have children with similar disorders know that, to some degree, he was able to manage because he was less aware of the potential things that could go wrong than you or I might be.

My family has received a lot of guidance around my son’s Nonverbal Learning Disability. He’s had specialists working with him, who have also helped us. The relationships with peers that were so difficult to foster were augmented by strong ties to adult family members, friends and mentors. We do our best to try and support and teach him, and still foster his independence. Yet I wonder how long it might have taken someone to notice him.

Children with social communications issues or autism spectrum disorders have a way of staying on the periphery, with an “invisibility cloak” wrapped around them. The more profound the disability, the harder it is to remove the cloak. This boy’s mother said, “I don’t know, as a mother, how to get to his heart.”

She'll need some help.

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