In the early summer afternoon, seven-year-old Carter Stevens stood transfixed as he stared intently at his reflection in the calm water. Because of his autism, he was mesmerized by mirrors, windows or anything else that reflected his image. Out here in the fresh air, his senses were relaxed. He felt the warm sunlight on his face, he heard the variety of sounds made by the birds in the nearby trees and off in the distance he could hear a lawnmower as someone cut their grass.
Staring at himself in the water provided the soothing relief that Carter needed. The park was a peaceful place with no one to bother him. His brain was not being bombarded by a barrage of incoming stimulation that he neither wanted nor understood. It was a refuge of solitude without the frenzy of activity that frequently disturbed him.
As he enjoyed the tranquility of the outdoors, Carter had no way of knowing that his presence in the park had set off a frantic city-wide search to find him. At this moment, his whereabouts was the number one priority of local law enforcement. In their effort to locate him, they had mobilized the maximum amount of manpower possible. This was done because of their knowledge of what could happen to an individual with autism that wanders.
After standing motionless for several minutes, Carter unconsciously shifted his weight to his left foot. That slight change tilted the angle of the flat rocks beneath him, making them rapidly slide into the water. The sudden movement caused him to lose his balance, and he plunged headfirst into the deep end of the pond.
It was a moment of pure horror for the child. Since infancy, Carter had been terrified to be submerged in water. As the surface disappeared from view, panic quickly overwhelmed him. Not knowing how to swim, he struggled to make his body go towards the fading sunlight, but it was no use. As he felt himself sinking closer to the bottom, he instinctively opened his mouth to scream, but that only allowed the water to begin filling his lungs. It took just a few moments before the young boy was enveloped in blackness.
TWO HOURS EARLIER
Sandra Stevens called out to her son for the third time that his lunch was ready. She listened for footsteps but heard nothing. Wiping her hands on a dishrag, she went to the hallway. “Carter! Please come in here and eat your lunch.” She waited as the last of her patience ebbed away. It had already been a difficult morning with her only child. His meltdown over not getting to wear his old sneakers (Sandra had put them in the washer because of all the mud) had been epic. Carter was resisting wearing his new pair because of the way they felt. She was hoping the behavior would not continue for the rest of the day. They both needed a break, but with autism, you never knew for sure.
Fortunately, not every day was a struggle, but that was because Sandra had learned, through trial and error, the triggers that were most likely to cause her son to become stressed. However, there were still times when she didn’t understand Carter’s response to change. His aversion to his new shoes had caught her by surprise, but now it would be added to the list of situations that could cause their lives to be challenging.
She walked down the hall and opened his door, but there was no sign of her son. She checked his favorite hiding places, but the room was empty. This did not concern her because she immediately realized where he was. Sandra turned and walked to her bedroom, knowing her son would be standing in front of her open closet, staring at his reflection in the full-length mirror. She stepped into her room – but Carter was not there. The closet door was closed. For a second she froze, but just then a slight breeze gently ruffled the curtain covering the window by the bed. Sandra could feel her throat tightening as she rushed over and pulled it back. Her window, like every other in the house, was always kept locked. But now she stared in disbelief because this window was wide open.
It only took a split second for the sickening realization to hit Sandra that her vulnerable son could be in life-threatening danger. Instantly her imagination began to run wild with terrible thoughts of what might happen to him, and as the horrific images of imminent tragedy filled her mind, her heart began to break.
Tom Perkins had put off mowing the grass as long as he could. It was not his favorite chore, but it had to be done. The city kept the park next to his property in beautiful condition, so he felt an obligation to keep his yard in as good a shape as possible.
Now that he had taken early retirement, he could mow whenever it was convenient instead of just on the weekends when he was usually busy. He had finished his backyard first and had just started on the front when he glanced over at the park and noticed the boy standing at the edge of the duck pond. The bright red shirt he was wearing stood out against all the greenery in the park. Because of the distance, it was difficult to tell his age, but Tom was sure that he was pretty young.
As he kept mowing, he looked around the park and saw that there were no other children or adults in sight. Tom wondered if the boy was old enough to be there by himself but then he remembered how he and his childhood friends had roamed their neighborhood without supervision, and he realized he was thinking like an old man.
Tom continued looking over at the park as he mowed, but after a minute or so it became apparent that something odd was going on. The child was standing transfixed in one spot and appeared to be staring into the water. Tom couldn’t put his finger on it, but the situation just didn’t seem right. He turned the mower and pushed it across his yard the other direction. It took about twenty seconds to complete the strip. As he turned the mower again and headed back the other way, he looked over at the pond and was surprised to see that the boy had vanished.
He stopped the mower’s engine and scanned the park for any sign of him, but there was nothing. Then he noticed the ducks making a ruckus, flapping their wings and rising up and down in the water. They were clearly agitated about something. It took a second for Tom to put it all together, and then the unimaginable occurred to him. Had the little boy fallen into the water? He knew that end of the pond was at least eight feet deep.
As his heart began to pound, he started walking towards the park. Soon he broke into a slow trot but with each step, his pace quickened until he was finally running as fast as he possibly could. Tom quickly reached the spot where the boy had been standing, and immediately spotted a child’s sneaker laying on the rocks. It appeared to be brand new. An intense feeling of anxiety assaulted his nervous system as he took one last look around the park – but there was no sign of the boy. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his phone and dialed 911. He gave the operator his location, but as he began to explain the situation, he saw something that stopped him in mid-sentence. About ten feet out from the bank, a long string of bubbles rose to the surface. Tom hesitated for only a moment and then dropped his phone and dove into the water.
As the minutes ticked by, Sandra became increasingly frantic. Because her son was nonverbal, and rarely responded to human contact, she knew that if someone found him, he would not be able to communicate who he was or where he lived. Seconds after she realized he was missing, she had called 911. But the problem was, she could not be sure how long he had been gone. Typically after a meltdown, he required a significant amount of time alone before he fully recovered. She guessed it had been at least an hour, if not more, since she had actually seen her son, and it terrified her to think how far he could have gone in that length of time.
After giving the police all the information she could, she’d gotten in her car and driven around in a desperate attempt to find Carter. Several of her neighbors had joined the search as well, but so far there had been no trace of her son. Sandra could not help but think of all the recent news stories concerning children with autism and wandering. Some of them had been found, but other times the search ended in tragedy. As she drove down street after street, she continually wiped away tears as she strained to see any sign of her young son.
Immediately upon receiving the 911 call, local law enforcement agencies had responded by strategically deploying around the neighborhood so they could coordinate their efforts in the most effective way possible. The police knew that time was critical because every minute that passed increased the search area exponentially.
After an hour without any news about her child, Sandra became distraught. She could no longer safely drive so she pulled her car into a parking lot and killed the engine. Burying her face in her hands she began to sob. She thought to herself that she would give anything if she could just go back to earlier in the day and change her decision to put her son’s old shoes in the washer.
Feeling utterly alone and consumed with guilt, Sandra had no way of knowing that only a mile to the west, a dramatic life or death struggle to save her son was now underway.
Thankfully, the water was reasonably clear offering decent visibility for a significant distance. Tom searched along the bottom of the pond trying to see anything red. Twisting and turning, he stayed under as long as he could, but eventually, he was forced to come up for air. After breaking the surface and taking a quick gulp of oxygen he dove back down, desperately trying to see as far as possible. After going a short distance, he turned hard to his left and caught a glimpse of what he thought could be red material. He forcefully propelled himself in that direction, and as he got closer, he could make out the faint outline of a child.
Tom’s heart was racing, and he began to feel the need to breathe, but he didn’t dare go to the surface now and lose track of the boy. He got to Carter within seconds and grabbed him by the shoulders. The child showed no signs of life. Using all the strength he could muster, and with his lungs starting to feel like they would burst, Tom labored to reach the surface, struggling against the weight of both their bodies. At the last possible second, with his air supply gone, they broke through the water into the brilliant sunlight. Gasping for air, Tom knew that he didn’t have a second to spare. He took one look at Carter’s colorless face, and it was obvious that the young boy’s life was in grave danger – if it was not too late already.
It took several seconds to get to the bank. Still trying to get his breath, Tom carefully lifted Carter out of the water. The boy’s body was limp. Tom took just a moment to look around for anyone that could help, but he was alone. He carried Carter away from the rocks along the shore and laid him down on a flat area of grass. He checked for sounds of breathing and found none. He positioned Carter’s head and gave two rescue breaths. He then placed his hands at the proper spot on the boy’s chest and began CPR. For the next three minutes, he continued the cycle of two breaths and thirty compressions, over and over again.
Tom was nearing exhaustion, but the adrenaline rushing through his body allowed him to keep going. Finally, off in the distance, he could see the red lights of the approaching emergency vehicles. In short order, help arrived in mass. As he finally relinquished the CPR to professionals, he stepped back and looked at the body of the helpless child. Suddenly all the pent-up emotion he had held in check during the rescue overwhelmed him. Tears filled Tom’s eyes as he wondered if he had done enough.
Sandra’s phone rang on the car seat next to her.
Trying to control her sobs, she listened to the police dispatcher as he told her the news she had feared. She cried out in anguish when she was told that her only child had been pulled from a body of water and was now in route to the emergency room at County General.
Sandra started her car and, struggling to see through the stinging tears, began the ten-minute drive to the huge medical complex. As she fought her way through heavy traffic, her mind exploded with a rush of memories focused on the challenges her son had faced. She thought back to the early warning signs regarding Carter’s behavior. She remembered the significant delays that occurred before milestones were reached. And she relived the day when she received the official diagnosis that he was on the autism spectrum.
It had all been too much for Carter’s father. He left Sandra when their son turned four. Somehow she would now have to find the strength to call him, although he’d made it clear he wanted nothing to do with them.
Sandra had always tried to do the best she could as a single mother, but she knew that she had come up short countless times. Her immense sense of inadequacy had been a constant reminder that being the parent of a child with autism is a role mixed with self-doubt and uncertainty. But today……today was unforgiveable.
She kept thinking she should have gone to check on Carter sooner – but she didn’t know that he had figured out how to unlock the window. Still, she wondered why she had waited for an entire hour. Was it because she was angry and didn’t want to face him? Was she feeling beaten down by the unending struggle of raising a child alone? Did she just need some time away from all the emotion? In her mind, they were all selfish reasons – for which they were now paying a terrible price.
Sandra knew she was more than just Carter’s mother. She was also his guardian and protector. She believed it was her responsibility to protect her son at all times, and she had failed.
Finally, the hospital came into view. As she pulled into the parking lot of the emergency room, Sandra saw an ambulance at the door. Realizing it was probably the vehicle that had transported Carter, she suddenly felt physically ill. She fought the urge to get sick at her stomach, as she grabbed her purse and began to run towards the medical center.
With each step, Sandra knew she was closer to finding out the condition of her son – but she had already decided that if he did not survive, she could not go on living without him.
ONE WEEK LATER
Filled with a sense of profound thankfulness, Sandra Stevens stood in the police station with Carter at her side.
As she glanced down at her beautiful son, she thought about how precious life is – and how fragile. She had come perilously close to losing him, but he had been brought back to her by the heroic efforts of strangers who did everything in their power to save a little boy who did not fully comprehend the danger he had lived through.
Once it was clear that her son would fully recover, she’d felt an intense need to show her appreciation to everyone involved. Sandra had requested the opportunity to personally thank all of those who had played a part in saving her son’s life. The emergency room staff and the EMT’s had all been thanked when Carter was released from the hospital.
But there was one more person she wanted to meet, and he was the most important of all. As she chatted with the officers, her sense of anticipation grew.
Carter looked around the room at all the officers but was careful not to make eye contact. Sandra watched as her son walked over to a small window and began to stare at his reflection. She looked down at his old sneakers and shook her head.
She wondered if her son would ever allow her to enter his reality. She desperately wanted to know what he thought and how he felt, but at this point in their lives, autism continued to be an impenetrable barrier that kept her from fully understanding how Carter experienced the world. But Sandra knew it was important for both of them that she not give up. After everything they had gone through this past week, she was now even more determined to connect as deeply as possible with her son so she could help him lead a full and rewarding life in his own way.
Suddenly her train of thought was interrupted when a door to her right opened, and the Chief of Police walked in. Next to him was a slightly built man, with graying hair who looked to be in his early sixties.
Sandra could feel the emotion welling up inside as they walked over to her.
The chief smiled broadly. “Mrs. Stevens, I would like to introduce you to Tom Perkins. This is the man that saved your son’s life.”
Tom extended his hand, but Sandra brushed it aside and hugged him with all her might. She had been waiting for days for this opportunity, and she could not control her emotion. As they held each other, she placed her head on his shoulder and cried. For a brief time, she couldn’t speak, but finally, she began to repeat, “Thank you, thank you.”
The Chief hesitated for a few moments and then said, “Mrs. Stevens……” he waited for her to respond, but Sandra ignored him and kept hugging. The Chief gave them a little more time and then he gently said “Mrs. Stevens, I have something important to tell you……Mr. Perkins is deaf. But officer Anita LaRosa knows sign language, and she will interpret for you.”
Sandra continued the hug for several more seconds and then stepped back and looked intently at the man in front of her. It had never occurred to her that the person who had rescued her son could have his own particular challenges.
She turned to officer LaRosa, and in a voice choked with gratitude, she said, “Would you please tell Mr. Perkins that I can never repay him for what he did. I am so grateful. I just don’t know how to express it.” She paused as the officer signed her words.
Tom smiled warmly and signed his modest reply.
Officer LaRosa repeated his words, “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
Sandra answered, “That is true, but it was far more than that. Just as importantly, you did all the right things. First, you were able to find my son and get him out of the water, then you knew how to keep him alive.” She waited for the translation before continuing. “We are so fortunate that you knew how to do CPR.”
Tom nodded and signed, “It’s strange. When I learned CPR, I never dreamed I would actually use it someday. But when that time came, I was scared that I wasn’t doing it right.”
The Chief interjected, “The EMTs told us that Tom performed it perfectly.” He motioned toward her son. “There is the living proof.”
Tom felt embarrassed and quickly signed, “I’m just thankful our city offers a system that allows you to text to 911. It’s not available everywhere, but in this case, it made all the difference.”
Tom looked over at Carter who continued to be entranced by his reflection in the window. He turned back to the two women and signed, “You have a special son. I know what it is like to have other people think of you as being different. But I was blessed to have a mother who loved me for who I was. I think Carter is blessed to have you.”
Sandra shook her head and said, “I wish I could believe that, but it was my fault that Carter ended up at the pond.”
Tom looked at her with compassion and signed, “It’s obvious how much you love your son, so it’s only natural that you would feel bad about what happened. But just remember that every one of us who raises a child will have regrets. All you can really do is face each day with strength and courage.” He paused and looked back at the little boy he had pulled from the water. “I hope you will find a way to move past this, so you can continue to be the mom that Carter needs and deserves.”
As Sandra listened to the words of the interpreter, she knew it was important advice, but she wondered if she would ever be able to forgive herself.
Then Tom signed, “We all want life to be perfect, but you and I, in particular, know that’s not the way it is. I’m just happy that you get to spend the rest of your lives together.”
In a soft tone of voice filled with appreciation, Sandra said, “We only have that chance because of you.” Then she reached out and touched him on the shoulder. “I want you to know that you will always be a part of our lives. I will never ever forget what you did for us.”
Tom smiled and signed, “Thank you. And rest assured I will never forget you and Carter either.”
They continued to talk for several more minutes, both of them reflecting on the life-affirming joy they felt compared to the devastating sorrow they could have been forced to endure. Although Sandra did not want to take up too much of everyone’s time, she was reluctant to let their conversation end. She wanted to make sure that she had properly expressed to Mr. Perkins how she felt about his heroic actions.
But finally, after one more heartfelt hug, it was time to go. Sandra felt emotionally drained as she watched the man who had changed their lives forever, leave the room through the same door he came in.
After thanking the assembled officers one last time, she and Carter stepped out of the police station into a future that offered no certainties but at least provided them with the opportunity to face the challenges of ASD together.
As they walked to their car, Sandra was so thankful that her son’s life had been saved – but she could not help but think of other children with autism who had wandered and not been spared.