A lump the size of Texas fills my throat as I think about the last six days of events: a little boy in Virginia went missing on Sunday of last weekend. He’s eight-years old, non-verbal and has autism. Five nights. Six days. No food. Rain. The dark of night. Dropping temperatures. Alone.
I watched the story unfold from my computer screen. Each day this week I sat and read one terrifying internet news story and then another about Robbie Wood, Jr. By Thursday I was beyond scared for this little boy. I didn’t want to check the news that morning fearing the worst possible outcome, but felt I had to. Robbie, a little boy the same age as my son, was still out there. A little boy who can’t cry for help was missing. A little boy who needs to be found was still lost, far from home and in a strange place all alone.
Every time I thought of the horrible what ifs that Robbie might run into, a lump formed in my throat. I had to physically shake my head to make it go away. Tears started, but I couldn’t stop them. Over the week, one day turned into another with no sign of Robbie. I honestly started to lose hope. I went back to read the updates Thursday morning and discovered that Robbie still hadn’t been found. Status updates continued to be shared with prayer requests in the hopes that more help and awareness of the situation would draw volunteers to help bring Robbie home safely.
Prayers were said. Hope stayed alive. More and more volunteers answered the plea to help find Robbie. Every day citizens turned into quickly trained search and rescue team members. News snippets showed those people standing in long lines in the cold ready to offer whatever assistance they could. They got the latest briefing and search locations and were sent out into the woods where we all hoped Robbie would still be alive.
A nightmare I fear I have for my own son turn into real-life terror for another boy. After I read the news updates on Thursday morning I decided I couldn’t sit at home and just pray. Of course prayer is very powerful, and I wasn’t going to stop saying any. I’m a firm believer in God’s everyday miracles, but I felt I had to do more. I called the sheriff’s office in Hanover County and asked what I could do to help. I said I was just a Mom, but I’ve got a kid like Robbie—I could offer some autism advice, bring some food, help man the volunteer tables. Give me something to do. I can’t sit here any longer. I got patched through to two other departments, gratefully thanked for making the call and then got directions to the central location where volunteers were gathering.
The fire department that was collecting food donations gave me the go ahead to come by and drop off groceries. I packed three bags of food and raced out the door. One bag was full of Ronan’s gluten-free snacks and organic fruit. I wanted to do this because I thought if other families like mine who have food restrictions also answered the call to bring more support, having alternative food choices would be helpful. When I arrived to the fire department I saw that other people had made generous donations and left hopeful well wishes to the professionals in charge.
I didn’t want to just drop off the groceries and go home though. I ached to be of more help. Only one other citizen was at the fire department while several state police officers, EMTs, first responders and fire department personnel were working. I thought maybe I could share some info on autism awareness or sensory issues to the guys at the station. I wanted to learn what they knew of Robbie’s potential behaviors and what how they would approach a child like Robbie if they were the ones to be his rescuer. I wondered what they knew of the Project Lifesaver program available in their county and in others in the surrounding area. I needed to hear their answers because in the back of my mind, as much as I don’t want to think about the thought of losing a child to wandering, it is a real fear of mine because my son has wandered before.
One of the fire fighters I spoke to had a good deal of information about autism. He said his wife works with children like Robbie. I was grateful that his wife’s experience gave him a head’s up of how different a missing typical child and a missing child with autism differ. He knew about sensory problems and how loud noises could send kids off in another direction leading them further away from a search team. The fireman shared some of the strategies the rescuers were using and where they were searching. I was a bit relieved with how much knowledge this one fireman had and again thanked him for his efforts in the Herculean task of finding Robbie.
I then shared a little bit about Ronan and why I wanted to be there. I told him how we got in touch with our local police department and brought a bio of Ronan—it’s a picture and short description that gets updated yearly so that in a God-forbid moment, if Ronan ever does wander or if we have a 9-1-1 medical situation at home, the police have a physical description of Ronan. It includes all his vitals and also states the medical issues Ronan has, how to safely approach him and how to make contact with him through sign language with examples of words Ronan can respond to. I wrapped up my conversation with a quick thank you again. I said I felt like I just had to get there to do something even though I really wish I could be out there in the woods searching. He said that they had hundreds of professionally trained search and rescue workers with blood hounds, search dogs and even cadaver dogs. The reality of how intense and life threatening the situation was came flooding back when I heard cadaver dog.
On my way back to my car, I said another quick prayer for Robbie and for all the people who were helping. How does one emotionally hold up when a nightmare turns into the scary reality Robbie’s family was living? The lump in my throat came back, and Thursday turned into another day that a child with autism was lost in the woods, alone, in the cold turning colder with no food or drink.
Nightmare No More
Come Friday afternoon with my children having just prayed again for Robbie’s safe return home, I read the news that Robbie was found alive. ALIVE!!! I shared the news with my children as soon as I read the headline. My kids had many, many questions after we celebrated what we had been fervently hoping and praying. The kids asked where he was, who found him, did he have his clothes with him, was he cold, did he get hurt and how many days was it that Robbie was gone again? Six. Six days of what I can’t imagine.
My five-year hadn’t heard the entire story yet as I was shielding her from how grave a situation this was for a child like Robbie. I gave her enough background telling her that a boy like her brother who can’t call out for help was lost in the deep, deep woods. He was very far away and was probably really cold and very hungry. Lots of people were looking for him, and even more people were praying. I continued to answer my kids’ questions with as much information I could share from the joyful news report. Later, when I told my husband that Robbie was found, I couldn’t get the whole sentence out before I burst into tears.
I’m in awe that a large group of strangers in Robbie’s community came together so quickly to find a little boy they’d never met. I hope this means that more people understand autism and the negative effects it can bring. Parts of the autism some children live includes life-threatening situations like what happened this past week. Wandering is all too real for several families including my own. As autism continues to increase at alarming rates stories like Robbie’s could very well become a steady reality. It will either shock people who aren’t prepared for it or finally open the eyes of those who refuse to admit its growing prevalence.
The autism community again banded together as much as we could this week from one computer screen to the next. We shared updates and hopeful prayers we insisted on continuing to pray even when the news was grim. As hard as it was to sit here daily to read and then imagine the harrowing experience Robbie was living, I also fought through the emotions to pray that more families who do struggle with autism can get the help they need before it’s too late. Some of our kids don’t understand what they do is inappropriate. They don’t know how to help themselves in certain situations. Parents and providers work overtime to make things better as much as they can. Sadly, sometimes that level of better is never enough for someone unfamiliar with autism. Our children’s behavior is not meant to insult or demean someone. Sometimes scary and horrifying do occur. Those are facts of life with autism and ones we’d rather never have let happen.
Real people saw that help was needed and right away. What started out as terrifying turned into a miracle moment. I pray that as Robbie’s story is retold again on national news as it was on Friday evening so that more awareness about autism support can grow in everybody’s community. Of course I’d rather the autism rates start to decrease and there be no need for awareness, but until an acknowledgement that our kids’ health and lives are in jeopardy I’ll be always be emotionally invested in stories like Robbie’s.
Cathy Jameson is Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.