When Your Child Wanders

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Editor’s Note – This is a guest post by Sabeeha Rehman

You are sitting in your living room when suddenly the front door bursts open and a young man barges into your home—a stranger.

How would you react?

Scream?

Confront him?

Pull out a gun?

Call the cops?

My son had just pulled up in his minivan in front of a house of a family they were visiting. In the car was his wife and his three children. As the five of them started disembarking—doors sliding, get little girl out of the car seat, close all doors. Then, one of them shrieked, “Where is Omar?”

He was gone.

Where?

“Omar! Omar!” They all started calling out.

“Laila, run to the corner—that way, Sofia, you run to the corner that way,” my son called out as he ran in a third direction.

“Omar, Omar … ”

No Omar.

He is going to get hit by a car.

Omar is 16. Omar has autism. Omar is nonverbal. Omar cannot handle loud sounds of cars honking. Omar cannot explain that he is lost.

“Omar! Omar … ”

Suddenly, the door of one of the houses opened and a man stepped out with Omar. “Is he yours?” the man called out. He explained that they were sitting in their living room, when the front door opened and in barged a teenaged boy.

“We are so sorry. He has autism … ”

“I know. I have a son with autism. I knew it as soon as I saw him.”

How often does that happen?

Anything could have happened to Omar in that house, but the man of the house knew not confront him or pull a gun. God was watching over Omar.

In shock and utter relief, they took Omar’s hand and walked to the house of the family they were visiting. As soon as they entered, Omar ran through the house and rushed into the bathroom.

So that is what it was. He had wanted to go to the bathroom. He couldn’t express himself. When riding in the car, he couldn’t say, “Mom, I want to go to the bathroom.” As soon as the car stopped, he had slid out and rushed into a house. And while bending over to unbuckle little girl out of the car seat, or perhaps attend to that ringing phone, no one noticed Omar slip out.

Anything could have happened.

I recalled the incident this morning, while sitting at the New York Police Academy, where Dennis Debbaudt was conducting a training of the police sergeants on handling children with autism. Our chapter, the National Autism Association New York Metro Chapter has been sponsoring this training session every year during Autism Awareness month, for many years now. The police are trained on how to recognize a person with autism; they wander and tend to gravitate to water, so look for a lost child in those places first; that it takes them 12-20 seconds to process a question, so be patient; they do not follow directions easily, so talk clearly; they react when touched, so handle with care; they react to loud noises and bright lights, so turn off the siren and strobe lights; handling hi-risk calls of aggressive behavior; handling those prone to seizures or dependent on medication; and more.

Years ago, we were at an interfaith iftar at Gracie Mansion when my husband Khalid noticed the then police commissioner, Raymond Kelly.

“I will wait until he is seated and then go talk to him.”

“About what?” I asked.

“About starting an autism sensitivity training program for police officers.”

Khalid had been trying to get through to the NYPD for months to propose this program. Once the guests took their seats, Khalid walked over to the commissioner’s table and introduced himself and his proposal. Ray Kelly took out his pen and a card from his breast pocket, and made a note.

“Someone will contact you tomorrow,” he said.

Just like that. Khalid proposed; and the Commissioner said ‘Yes’.

When leaving, he called out to Khalid above the crowd, “Doctor, I haven’t forgotten. Someone will call you.”

Someone did. The next morning. It led to our autism chapter’s meeting with NYPD, and within a few months, the first training session was launched. NYPD has taken it a step further and created its own training video on autism sensitivity training. Today when Dennis asked the attendees, “How many of you have had an encounter with a person with autism?” six officers raised their hands. When he had asked this question a few years ago, no hands went up. Why now? Because now they can recognize autism.

Omar wears a GPS device. Every morning, Khalid’s phone beeps and a message pops up: Omar has left home. A few minutes later: Omar has arrived in Moorestown High School. His GPS—Angel Sense—is connected to his parents’ and Khalid’s phone. It will alert us: Omar is at an undisclosed location. The map shows his location, and Mom or Dad can tell that he is on a school trip to Target, learning life skills. At night, we may get a message: Omar’s device needs to be charged.

So why didn’t the GPS alert the family that day—the day he bolted out of the car?

Because the device was sitting on his shelf at home. He was going to be in the car with them, then in the house they were visiting with them, then back in the car, with them; so they didn’t need it.

So, the highest authority took over and put him in a safe place.

About Sabeeha Rehman
Sabeeha Rehman is the author of the memoir, "Threading My Prayer Rug. One Woman’s Journey From Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim." You can read more about the author here.
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