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My son went missing this summer. It was a beautiful day and our whole extended family had rented tubes to float down a river. We have done it before, at different rivers, but the setup is always the same. They drop you off upstream and you float for a couple of hours until you arrive back at the rental spotโ€”in this case, a beach that was very clearly marked with signs indicating that this is the stopping point.

We had a large group and it’s difficult to stay together on the river, and I knew I had to stick near my 5-year-old. The teens and pre-teens were with other adults. My group with the little kids was the slowest and the last to arrive back at the beach. Everyone was accounted for, except my son. He had been with another adult, who was sure he knew the beach was the stopping point when they arrived there together. However, she got out of the water and left him to wait for the others to arrive.

My son is 12 years old. He is an excellent swimmer (thank you five years of swim team). He had a life jacket with him. But one thing he lacks is awareness of his surroundings. I knew that despite his companionโ€™s insistence otherwise, it was very possible that he had no idea that she had left the water and that he did not realize he was supposed to stop floating there.

Panic set in right away, and I called the local police who quickly arranged a search party. His two older siblings were sick with worry. As they listened to my conversation with the police chief, they heard him ask if my son had any special needs. My answer was, โ€œWell, he is on the autism spectrum, but you would never know it if you met him.โ€ But I felt this was important to share with those searching for him, to shed some light on why he could be completely oblivious to a dangerous situation. For the two teenagers, it was the first time they heard me refer to their brother that way.

RELATED: Before I Knew Autism

I am so thankful to the man at the riverfront campground who volunteered to jump in a kayak and search the river. He found my son just around the river bend, sitting on a rock. Almost an hour had passed, and he must have realized something was wrong and he was alone, so he had the presence of mind to stop. We got him back safe and sound, and the terror of the moment subsided into one of my sonโ€™s greatest afternoons as his two older siblings showered him with love and attention.

They love him, but his quirky behavior can often make it difficult to get along with him. Today, however, the fear turning into relief caused them to want to be with him, laughing and joking, and for the 12-year-old it was pure magic to hang out with his brothers this way.

Later on, the big kids asked me about my conversation with the police chief. โ€œWhy did you say that he is autistic? Is he?โ€ We have always known that he is on a different plane than the rest of us. Last year we finally did the official testing, and the results were really no surprise. He is on the autism spectrum, but what does that even mean for us?

He is perfect, he is loveable, he is strange, he is quirky. He is terrible in social situations, he seeks out odd sensory situations (sleeping under the bed, going outside barefoot in the snow, squishes his body into the smallest possible locations just to chill out), he has an extremely limited palette and eats the exact same meals and snacks over and over. He is too loud and makes repetitive movements without realizing it. He still loves snuggling with mom or dad, he has insomnia most days but will fall asleep if someone sleeps with him. He is a sweetheart to his little brother but often gets carried away playing too rough.

RELATED: Sometimes Autism Spectrum Disorder Hides in Plain Sight

Enough time has passed that the kids are all okay with what happened and they are ready to tease each other about it. The teens have mentioned to him that he is autistic, it is something we hadnโ€™t really discussed much because I didnโ€™t know what to do with it. He hates feeling like something is wrong with him and tends to fixate, which is why I had hesitated to bring it up.

Where do we go from here? He isnโ€™t going to change, and I donโ€™t want him to. My hope with the autism testing was just to give him some peace of mind since he has started to realize he is different from others. We did the testing to get some answers, but all it has left us with is more questions. He is too high functioning to expect change or even to get much grace from others. I thinkโ€”I hopeโ€”it is likely that having a diagnosis will ease the anxiety he often feels, knowing his behavior is usually slightly off. After this incident, will he gain more awareness of his surroundings? Very unlikely. We will have to look out for him, and I think the big kids will do so after this scare.

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Katie Maguire

Katie Maguire is a farmer and nursery plant grower, specializing in heirloom varieties. Her interests include art, architecture, antiques, and baseball. She is married with four children and is based in New Hampshire.

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