Every night, I turn off the TV, roll off the couch, wake up my wife, and shut off the lights. I find that it's easier to see if the deadbolts are in place by shining my phone's light at them in a dark room. I check the door to the garage, front door, and porch. All locked.
This might seem like a normal routine of a man ensuring the security of his family from unwanted visitors in the night. But I don't make sure the doors are locked to keep people out; I make sure they are locked to keep one person in... my son Griffin.
Griffin, 4, has autism and a deep curiosity to explore places where he shouldn't be -- all of our cabinets, no matter how high, the top of the refrigerator, the inside of a stranger's unlocked car, the tub of the dryer. You could say he's part spelunker or mountain goat. In autism lingo, he's an "eloper."
Eloper. Sounds like he's either running off to get married or starring alongside Josph Gordon-Levitt in a movie where they control time and space (Looper, anyone?). The running part is accurate and it seems like he can control time and space because he's so quick--here one second, gone the next.
Mostly, he's a sweet, happy, hilarious, smart, little boy who loves people and hates hand dryers in public restrooms. He's actually more well-behaved, less moody, and more pleasant than many kids. But damn, can he run.
"...and now my watch begins"
We like to think, he'd come back. But we don't know, so someone is always on "Griffin Duty." This means that one person always knows where Griffin is and what he's doing and that he can't get away or get out. You are on Griffin Duty until someone relieves you of your duty. This usually happens by the person on Griffin Duty saying, "You've got Griffin," and the new person confirming, "Yes."
Most people don't know what it means, to "have Griffin." So there's a very short list of those who we trust to be "Griffin watchers." To "have Griffin" is to not get distracted by other kids or lost in a conversation, or to turn away from him for more than a few seconds. If you are in a public place, like a mall or a parking lot, being on Griffin Duty can be a lot like guarding an NBA point guard. On defense you always keep yourself between the player with the ball and the player you are defending -- or ball-you-man, in basketball terms. For Griffin this translates to Griffin-you-danger/shiny thing that Griffin wants to play with. You keep your weight on your toes and set your sense at full alert.
Part of me wants to formalize a Griffin duty changing of the guard. There would be a handshake and an oath:
"Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Griffin Duty, for this night and all the nights to come."
That's actually the oath of the Night's Watch in Game of Thrones, but I think it works nicely.
There are people who I love and trust who I would not trust to be on Griffin Duty. This could be because of their personality ("look a squirrel") or because of their situation. They might be hosting the party or attending to their own children or simply just not fast enough to run after him. (Griffin has all of the curiosity of a toddler, but the speed of an Olympic sprinter.)
It's the social functions that scare us the most. The more people there are, the more Griffin could be passed from one watcher to the next who may not appreciate the seriousness of their task. "Who's with Griffin?" I ask countless times at any gathering, if I'm not the one on duty and don't see him with the person who last was. I'm a calm, laid-back person, but when I ask that question, it's tinged with panic.
We've lost Griffin. We lived in a rental for a few months before we moved to our current house. In new environments, Griffin likes to explore his boundaries even more. While we were inside, he got out a door and we found him playing in the driveway.
One time when we pulled into our garage, there was not a clear proclamation of who "had Griffin" and each of the three adults in the car thought someone else had him. He was outside by himself for no more than a few minutes.
We were all terrified. We've been much more vigilant with Griffin Duty ever since.
The world's shortest babysitter list
When I think about all that we do, everything I just wrote, I feel more than a little neurotic. I know there are people who must think we are overprotective parents and we need to lighten up. But then, in the news last week, a 5-year-old with autism got out of his house at 11:00 p.m. on New Year's Eve. They found his body a few days later. He had drowned.
I'm writing this because someone you may know likely has a child that does the same thing. You might wonder why they regularly turn down social invitations, and why they can't just get a babysitter. Well, that babysitter list can be a pretty short list.
I'm writing this to let you know the focus it takes to watch your friend's child.
To our friends, if you invite us over, kids and all, know that I'll likely chase Griffin into your bedroom, bathroom, and into every room in your house whether it's picked up or not.
Hello, world, it's me Griffin
It's a balancing act. We encourage Griffin to explore the world, yet sometimes there needs to be a lock between him and that world. We like him to interact with people and go new places, yet sometimes he's not ready and sometimes we don't have the energy.
Griffin participates in 35 hours of one-on-one ABA therapy each week and is making huge strides. He goes to a typical pre-school. And he's all smiles most days.
We love our son and know that someday he'll be ready to be on his own in the world. Just not yet.
So I check the locks. I hold his hand. I sprint after him. I all but demand that the next person on Griffin Duty swear an oath.