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.

9 Comments

  1. We’ve gone over the “if we are separated” protocol many times. I wonder if it would be easier for C to memorize your number. Then he can just recite the digits to someone when he realizes you aren’t there. That’s something I think anyone would understand. That’s my hope for O, anyway.

    • Thanks, Kate! Colin actually knows all our phone numbers, etc. but the bigger concern is that when he becomes anxious or is in meltdown mode, he becomes almost unreachable. The challenge for us is to give him strategies to know when he’s feeling this way, take deep breaths, and repeat his info. 🙂

      • I love your answer: “The challenge for us is to give him strategies to know when he’s feeling this way, take deep breaths, and repeat his info.”
        This is so important and yet can be so difficult for the child to do and the adult to feel they are making progress. Please know that even though you are not sure this info. gets through to him, you WILL see, in time, that he DOES have it. Time and maturity is so frustrating to wait upon, for all parents, but especially a parent of an ASD child. I have now been with a few of the same students for several years and I DO see the changes and maturity. I am cheering you and Stefanie on. You are doing the right things for your boy. And isn’t nice when the people in your community help you out?

  2. Wow Mike. I’m wiping tears away. I told Julia about this and we know the feeling. I’m going off to check in with Kenzie and make sure he has memorized our phone numbers. In my most paranoid moments I’ve thought of putting a GPS tracker on him.

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