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Why the Kyrin Carter Tragedy Hits Close to Home for Many Parents

After a 10 day search by land, air and water the body of Kyrin Carter, a 12-year-old Kansas City, Missouri boy with autism, was found Monday in the Little Calumet River in Hammond, Indiana. He and his family had been staying at the Best Western Hotel adjacent to the river when Kyrin went missing. Hotel and other surveillance video showed him leaving the hotel through a back door and walking barefoot along a path next to the river. In a heartwrenching interview with NBC 5 Chicago before her son’s body was recovered, Kyrin’s mother described him as “high-functioning” and said that he loved the water.

Her words cut right through me because Kyrin reminded me of my 11-year-old son who has autism, is labeled “high-functioning,” loves the water and has a history of elopement, which is walking or running away from secure locations or caregivers. I couldn’t help but think of the many times my son could have been in the same situation.

When my son was younger, he’d bolt down grocery store aisles running erratically until I caught up with him, unlock doors and walk out of them, let go of my hand and take off running at top speed, or try to wander away even if he wasn’t familiar with his surroundings.

On a trip to the lakefront, he pulled me into the water as he jumped up high and tucked his legs beneath him in an attempt to do a cannonball. When his body splashed down, I lost my balance and my feet slipped in the cold sand beneath the water. Before I knew it, waves were pushing us both further away from the beach. All I could think was if my son went under I wouldn’t be able to save him because I couldn’t swim. Thankfully, I stopped sliding enough to pull him toward me; then I ran out of the water and pushed him onto the beach before the next wave could take us further into the lake.

When he was in the first grade, his teacher notified me that he had slipped out of the classroom and made it to the school’s gym room on the first floor. She said when she caught up to him, she gave him a stern talking to and could tell he understood that walking out of class was dangerous and that he could get hurt, but I wasn’t as confident he got the message.

When I asked him why he walked out of class, he told me that he wanted to walk home. When I asked him why he jumped into the water at the beach or why he took off running through the grocery store, he said he did it because it was fun. Back then, it wasn’t clear he understood that danger was a bad thing, even when the ways he could get hurt were explained to him and no amount of discipline helped. The concept of danger just didn’t seem to sink in.

In those days, I lived with the fear that something bad could happen to him every day. I was careful never to take a nap or a shower or to even leave my son alone in a room for more than a few minutes while he was awake during the day, and he never left my side for a moment anytime we were out and about.

Putting a motion detector and a childproof doorknob protector on my apartment door gave me peace of mind and kept him inside. On the advice of his teacher, we began labeling behaviors and teaching him which were safe and which were dangerous using worksheets, flashcards and other activities. Over time, he began to learn what things were good for him to do and what things weren’t.

Now, my son doesn’t elope nearly as much as he used to, but it still happens. If something catches his attention, he rushes to it and sometimes even extends his hand to touch things that could hurt him. But now, more often than not, he stops himself before any harm is done.

As he’s learned what’s safe to do and what isn’t, he’s grown in confidence and wants to be more independent, but letting go is hard to do. My son can take care of his basic needs and complete many tasks independently, and the goals I and his teachers have set for him all include reducing the support he receives as he shows he’s mastered certain skills and behaviors. But there is a very thin line between safety and tragedy, and I don’t want to put my son in a situation he’s not prepared to handle in the rush to independence.

For me, Kyrin Carter’s death is a tragedy that hits too close to home.

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