It was a “dog day of summer” and NPR was pumping through the speakers of my sky blue minivan. Michael Brown was shot and killed just a couple weeks earlier, and the fractured race relations of our country were coming into light for many previously in the dark. I drove the tree-lined streets of my midwestern town as I listened to a woman speak of the fear she held for her son – a black, autistic teenager. She was being interviewed at a seminar designed to teach kids on the autism spectrum and their parents how to interact with police.
I passed the two-story, red brick apartment building where my sons lived for a short time with their birth mother. I thought of their stories of lights not working and the refrigerator being bare. I thought about how they were a short five blocks from our home, how we possibly passed them on walks or played at the same park without even realizing it. I thought about how the color of their skin would affect every interaction they have with authority figures, particularly the police, as they grew.
In 2014, my black and brown sons were three and four but I knew police officers (and I think we can safely assume everyone else) overestimate the age of black felony-suspected children by close to five years. I felt sympathy for the mother whose voice filled my ears.
He had been gone for about fifteen minutes, twenty tops. He left something in the condo – a ball, his goggles – I don’t remember what. It’s not until I see my husband walking back to the pool alone I realize something is wrong.
There are moments in motherhood when I hesitate – something in my gut forces a pause. This was not one of those moments. My son asked to go back to the condo to locate his forgotten something-or-other, and I said yes.
“Where’s Malachi?” I shout across the pool. “I thought he was with you,” is the response that floats back over the water. It takes a few more sentences to explain, but I knew immediately: Malachi was missing.
This is another motherhood moment, the one where fear strikes your heart like an ice pick and your insides go hollow. One of my children is missing.
I quickly usher the other kids out of the pool and send them inside with my brother and sister. I run around to the front of our condo building: the eleventh of thirteen completely identical buildings. Of course he got lost. Of course he couldn’t remember which one was ours.
“Have you seen a little boy, he’s wearing swimming trunks and a white towel around his neck?”
“Is he black?”
“Yeah, he was up around building nine.”
I run to building nine and shout his name several times. I ask a women walking by if she has seen a little boy and she tells me no. William is shouting his name. Malachi is nowhere to be found. My phone has 1% battery left. I tell William we need to call condo security.
I am back in my van on that stifling summer day of 2014. I hear the words of those mothers in my head, “It’s my worst nightmare,” she says. “I have the issue with him not understanding, possibly, a command to put your hands up or to get on the ground. So, yes, it’s scary.”
The 2017 me has watched black teenagers chased through the streets by police, complete with helicopters and police dogs, with my own eyes. The 2017 me is no longer in the dark. The 2017 me is the mother of a black, autistic little boy who looks five years older than he actually is. A little boy who will often not make eye contact, who may not process a command the first time it is given, who may flee instead of freeze or fight.
The 2017 me is terrified to call unarmed security officers to help locate my lost son.
I have friends and online acquaintances who have written beautiful words about autism and their appreciation for it. Autism has made them better mothers, they say. Autism has given them gifts, they say.
I do not feel this way about autism.
I am afraid of losing my son. To autism. To medications that numb his personality. To one of the other diagnosis that trails behind his name and his person. To a fidgety police officer who takes his cognitive delays as non-compliance. I am not a better mother because of autism. I am scared.
I turn the corner around building ten and see my brother walking towards me, nodding. They found him. He is safe.
Out of breath, I climb the steps to the porch and see him standing there, eyes wide, towel still draped around his shoulders. “Are you ok?” I ask. He nods. “Were you scared?” He nods. “I’m sorry,” I say, “that was my fault. All the buildings look the same, I should not have sent you back by yourself.” “I got confused,” he says. “Of course you did buddy, of course you did.”
The complexity of who this little person is – male, black, autistic, image bearer, adopted, bi-racial – and the intersectionality of these identities, is heavy. There is no bow that ties them neatly in the midst of a fallen world. There is only doing the best we can and prayer. But the honest truth is, some days it does not feel like enough.
Some days the weight is heavier than I think I can bear. Some days the air feels thicker-than-August-in-Miami thick and the judging eyes penetrate my flesh. Some days prayers feel unanswered. Some days are hard. Not all days are this way, of course, but some of them are.
Maybe some day I will write my own beautiful words about autism.