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When You're the Help

Photograph by Getty Images

I recently had one of my most-feared experiences. Sitting at a stop sign and waiting for a car to move, I noticed a young boy standing on the corner. He had his pants down around his ankles, and beside him lay his Razor scooter and a jacket. His genitals were exposed. I was confused by his presence, and surprised that a group of others were standing around watching him and chatting.

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As I pushed the gas pedal, I heard a small voice in my head say, “Don’t leave him here alone.” I made a U-turn and drove up to the boy, who I could see was no older than 10 or so. Rolling my window down I yelled, “Are you OK? Can I help you in any way?”

The boy never looked at me or answered my question. I honked my horn, and he never turned to acknowledge that someone was honking. I drove near the group of kids standing about and asked, “Have you ever seen this boy? Do you know him?” They all replied no. My heart started to race as I called 9-1-1—no one was available. I hung up, parked, and proceeded to get out of my car and just stand near the boy. He never acknowledged me, nor did he pull up his pants. He did pick up his scooter and attempt to ride it, unable, of course, to do so with his pants down. In seconds he dropped it.

After about 10 minutes (that lasted a very long time), I noticed a woman walking toward us with a younger, smaller child. As she caught sight of the boy, she let go of the child’s hand and began to run. As she approached, I could see that she was the age of a grandparent. She was out of breath and overwhelmed as she approached the boy, quickly pulling his pants up. As she did so, she spoke to me without making eye contact, “He has autism,” she said.

It turns out that I was the cavalry, even though I felt like a helpless bystander.

“I know,” I responded, “can I help you?” I could sense her frustration, fear and embarrassment. Or maybe I was just projecting how I’d feel if my son, with Down syndrome, were out of my sight and did something without understanding it was not appropriate. The woman then turned to the boy, and said, “You can’t just pull your pants down.” He never said a word, or even acknowledged her presence.

As a parent of a child with special needs, I’m often thinking about the “what ifs.” What will happen if I’m not around? Will he be safe? Will someone help him? Or will people misunderstand him and stand around watching and doing nothing? Having a nonverbal child makes it that much more frightening.

I returned to my car as the woman carried the Razor and gathered up her boys. It was clear to me that the older boy had slipped away from her on the Razor and that, with the younger child in tow, she’d been unable to keep up with him. She didn’t expect to see him at the corner with his pants around his ankles.

Sitting in the car, I started to cry out loud. I had no idea what to do with the stranger I’d encountered, and had I not had the experience with other nonverbal children, I would have assumed he was weird or being nasty in some way. As I sat in my car crying, it occurred to me that in spite of how helpless I’d felt, I was the help. My standing near him, asking questions about him to the strangers standing by and my desire to find a solution was helping. It turns out that I was the cavalry, even though I felt like a helpless bystander.

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Not driving away was the best (and most uncomfortable) thing I could have done. I just pray that my son will encounter someone willing to help should he ever be out of my sight, confused and needing assistance. I pray that person will have compassion in the face of the unknown.

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