Thanks for finding my son

An open letter to Chris from Ikea

Dear Ikea Chris,

I apologize for not knowing your last name; the conditions under which we met weren’t conducive to a more formal introduction. But please know that I’m extremely grateful for what you did for me and my family Sunday at the Brooklyn Ikea.

Colin, a young autistic boy, sits on a chair in an Ikea store, enjoying a relative moment of calm.

Ikea is a sensory wonderland for Colin: too much, too little, and sometimes just the right amount.

You already know the beginning of the story, because you witnessed it: I was in the self-service area grabbing a cart when I let go of my son’s hand for an instant. Boom! He was off like a shot! I ditched the cart and was in hot pursuit. You saw me; I saw you. You said, “Is that your son?” I mindlessly said, “Yes,” and continued my chase. I honestly didn’t give you another thought: I had a visual bead on Colin and hoped to catch him before he got too far ahead of me.

Plants, Housewares, Lighting — I was able to see him even though he was gaining ground. And then I lost him. His small frame and nimble moves made it easy for him to thread the throngs of shoppers with their carts and oversized Ikea bags.

What I didn’t know—couldn’t know—was that you took off after Colin, too, but on a different trajectory. Your hope was to intercept him if I didn’t. Smart move, Chris, smart move.

I ran through the lower level, eyes darting left and right in case he found a resting place; eventually I came to the stairs leading up to the Ikea Cafe. A thought: Colin loves their french fries. Worth a shot, but no dice. Then I remembered he was drawn to a specific bedroom display, so I began a lap around the second floor looking for the setup.

Colin relaxes in a bed in Ikea

The calm before the storm.

You work for Ikea, so you’re probably very familiar with the layout; I, however, felt like a rat in a maze filled with meandering shoppers and Scandanavian home furnishings. I tried to be nimble, but I sideswiped at least two unsuspecting customers as well as a Ypperlig floor lamp. (It wobbled but didn’t fall…I think.)

After ten gut-wrenching minutes, I finally made it to his favorite bedroom display. Again: no dice, no Colin.

And now panic set in.

You see, Colin’s autistic. He’s verbal, but his pragmatic language is weak; he struggles to explain things, particularly to strangers. When he’s scared, he has anxiety-fueled meltdowns which make it nearly impossible to engage him. He doesn’t know which strangers to trust or where to go if he’s lost and, as you saw, he’s prone to impulsivity. I imagined him running out the door and across the icy parking lot, confused and scared.

I was about to ask for help when something magical happened: a voice from above, a savior with a PA system: “Michael McWatters, please come to the rug department.” One more time for good measure: “Michael McWatters, please come to the rug department.” Huzzah!

A map of an Ikea store

Not as simple as it looks.

I ran to the nearest directory: Rugs, downstairs. But how to get there? The map was inscrutable, or my mind wasn’t working very well. Or both. I could only picture Colin wailing, so anxious he’d begun to cough or throw up, as he’s done in the past when upset. So although I’m middle-aged, I once again summoned my mediocre-at-best high school football moves to avoid collisions while still making haste to Rugs.

Glassware, Lamps, Kitchenware — RUGS! And there, to my relief, was Colin. He was lying atop a waist-high stack of rugs, smiling, rolling, getting his sensory on. And there you were, Chris. I recognized you instantly: the guy who saw me running after my son. So much to say, but first I had to check on Colin: 15 minutes apart, but he’s fine, natch. It’s me who’s a wreck: sweating through my heavy winter wear, panting and enervated from the adrenaline blast.

Colin relaxing in a bedroom setup at Ikea

Happy as a clam.

“Thank you thank you thank you! I’m so grateful!” I said. “I had no idea you were looking for him, too!”

“No worries! Glad I could help,” was your cheerful, humble reply. “He’s a funny kid. Took me a bit to get him to tell me your name so we could page you.”

I felt the need to explain. I said quietly, “He’s autistic…” But before I could finish, you nodded knowingly. “I could tell you needed help when I saw him take flight. I’m just glad I caught him.”

“Me, too. You have no idea.”

Or do you? Maybe you know how many autistic kids go missing every year. Maybe you’re aware of the fact that nearly half will run away before they’re 17 (the technical term is “eloping”), often with tragic results. Maybe you just had a sense.

Whatever the case, you did a remarkable thing. You saw an impish kid running away from his dad and understood there was something more at play. Most people wouldn’t have given the situation a second thought — and I don’t begrudge them, as outward appearances are deceptive — but you did, and you took action. You spared us both from excruciating anxiety…or worse.

So, Ikea Chris, thank you. I didn’t get your last name, and I should have, because the letter I wrote to Ikea corporate is incomplete in that regard. In it, I described Sunday’s events, told them your first name, and asked that they recognize you for your compassion.

If our paths cross again, I hope you’ll let me buy you a plate of Swedish meatballs in the Ikea Cafe. Colin will have the fries.

TED Talk: “To understand autism, don’t look away”

Today’s TED Talk has an important, moving message. As this autism mom says, “There is no need to be an expert nor do anything heroic to include someone. We just need to be there…we simply need to be close. And if we are afraid of something or we don’t understand something, we need to ask.” It’s seven minutes, and well worth it.

Note: the talk is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Outside in

A young autistic boy sits quietly while children in the background gaze at him.

A boy on a bench. What do you see?

Even though it’s inaccurate, I love this photo of Colin.

First the accurate part: it captures my son enjoying a brief moment of quiet in a playground, unaware that some children were staring at him.

Now the inaccurate part: the photo suggests exclusion and isolation. It implies that he might be the subject of teasing—or worse. It fits the narrative of autism we’ve come to accept as true. In this case, though, it simply isn’t.

The real story is that Colin never stops moving; he’s a ball of perpetual, joyful energy, and moments like these are rare. Those kids? They actually tried to play with him a few moments before I took the photo, but he just kept on doing his thing. They seemed curious about this boy who didn’t need them; if anything, they were the ones who may have felt excluded.

I took this photo to capture a peaceful moment, but when I looked at it later, what came through was something more melancholy. Why?

Every photographer knows that context is everything. In any image, what’s excluded is as important as what’s included. Timing, angle, framing – each, in its own way, shapes our perception of a moment’s truth. No photograph tells the whole story, and most barely tell an accurate one.

A young autistic boy laughs with joy while sitting on a swing in a playground.

Same day, same boy, different story.

When I look at Colin, I see challenges. Big ones. But mostly I see joy and enthusiasm for the world—his world. I see a boy who loves life with a purity and exuberance I myself have never experienced, not even as a child. I have a choice, then: I can choose to frame his story so that it makes me sad, or so that it makes me happy.

On my better days, I choose the latter.