A Prayer for Protection

I worried about what would happen to our autistic son, Mike, when we weren't around to look after him. Then came a late-night call from the police.

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- Posted on Sep 29, 2010

Last year our children, Mike, Kathleen and Bill, Jr., planned a big party for our golden wedding anniversary. "That's really something to celebrate," Kathleen said, "50 years together." Eyes twinkling behind his glasses, my husband added softly, "Good years, too."

Bill was right about that. When I looked back on the long, happy life we'd had together, though, I started wondering about what lay ahead. Worrying about what might happen to the kids when we weren't around to look out for them. It's what mothers do, even when their children are grown.

In my case, there was a real reason: Mike, our oldest, has autism, a neurological disorder that is associated with developmental disabilities, unusual repetitive behaviors and difficulties in social interaction. Back when Mike was growing up, autism was even less understood than it is now. Bill and I could only pray and try to figure things out as we went along.

People with autism often remain locked in their own worlds, so we were grateful we found ways to reach Mike. He worked hard to learn to get along in a world that often didn't make sense to him. Though he lived with us, he led a fairly independent life. He had a steady job as night-shift custodian at a nearby high school. He managed his own finances, drove his own car. For fun, he liked to read up on area history, then explore the small towns he'd gotten to know from his books.

Despite all his progress, at age 48, Mike remained in many respects as naïve and innocent as a child. We were constantly trying to prepare him for the obstacles he might face, the problems he might run up against. But the ordeal he went through last year was something no one could have planned for.

Late one night, not long after we'd talked about our anniversary party with the kids, a phone call came from the police. Somehow I slept through it, and Bill hadn't wanted to disturb me. When he filled me in the next morning, the whole thing sounded so bizarre I didn't believe it at first. Police investigators from Ontario County, an hour's drive from us, had picked Mike up from work and taken him in for questioning about a bank robbery that happened in their area a week and a half earlier, on Thursday, April 15, at around noon.

"There's no way Mike could have robbed a bank," I said, bewildered. "Besides, Thursday's his day for housecleaning." Like many autistic people, our son rarely strayed from his routines. "He was here with me, doing his chores."

"That's what I tried to tell the police," Bill said. "They won't take my word for it, since I wasn't there with you. They released Mike last night, but they want you to call right away."

I told the Ontario County police that on April 15, Mike had been home with me until he left for work around 2:30 p.m. When I explained that he could never have committed a bank robbery, the investigator said, "Well, you're his mother. Of course you'd say that."

"But it's true!" I exclaimed. "Mike is not capable of planning and pulling off something that complicated. He's autistic." Then, to clarify, I used a term we tried to stay away from. "He's impaired."

"I realized that, talking to Mike," the investigator replied. "Personally I don't think he did it. But he confessed, so I have to present this to the District Attorney."

"Confessed?" My mind was reeling. "He was nowhere near that bank!"

"He was in another branch of the bank a week later," the investigator said. "A teller thought he was acting suspicious and took down his license plate number."

Then it hit me. Mike had been on vacation last week. He'd spent his time off doing what he loved best—visiting small towns in our area and looking around. He liked to go into banks and get change. Had his autistic quirks been misinterpreted as criminal behavior? I hung up the phone, and prayed, God, let people see Mike for who he is—a good man, a gentle soul.

Later that morning Mike, in his halting way, told Bill and me what had happened with the police. Three officers had shown up where he worked. They read him his rights, handcuffed him and brought him in for questioning.

"Oh, Mike... " I sighed, my heart aching at how frightened he must have been.

Bill asked, "Why did you confess to something you didn't do?"

"They kept saying, 'You know you did it, Mike. I said I didn't know what they were talking about, and I wanted to go back to work. They said I could, if I told them what they wanted. So I did."

That was Mike. He just wanted to do what he thought was expected of him. He always tried to please people. Surely the police and the D.A. would see that.

They didn't. We were told Mike would have to appear in a lineup. We talked to a lawyer, who advised us that it was in Mike's best interest to cooperate with the authorities. So on a Friday morning three weeks after his interrogation, Mike returned to the Ontario County police station.

Bill and I waited on a bench in the hall while Mike stood in the lineup. Our lawyer came out looking grim. "The teller picked him."

"She's wrong!" I nearly shouted. Bill's arm tightened around me.

That afternoon in the courtroom, the nightmare continued. The judge set Mike's bail at $50,000 cash or $100,000 bond. Even our lawyer was stunned at the amount.

Police officers handcuffed Mike; standard procedure, they said. I had to stifle a cry. He looked so lost—and scared. God, don't you see how hard Mike tries? I asked. He believes in you. Why aren't you protecting him?

"Don't worry," Bill told Mike as he was led away to the county jail. "We'll get you out."

We had to! Mike wouldn't be able to handle spending the weekend in jail. The stress of being locked up would send him retreating into that inner world he'd worked so hard to get out of.

Bill and our lawyer made frantic phone calls to try and raise the bail money. I talked to family and friends. "Please pray for Mike," I asked everyone. "He's in need of protection, now more than ever."

Just before five, our broker told us his firm would loan us the money. We rushed to the county jail. Kathleen was waiting for us, looking worried. "I don't think Mike knows what hit him," she said. It took a while to get through the red tape, but at last we were able to take Mike home.

The nightmare wasn't over. Our lawyer warned us, "The case has to go back to the D.A. There may be a grand jury and a trial." Day after day, every time the phone rang, I jumped, terrified that our lawyer was calling to tell us Mike would have to go back to court, maybe back to jail.

Kathleen tried to get my mind off of it by talking about our anniversary party, coming up in a few weeks. I couldn't think about what we were going to have for dinner, what I was going to wear. All I could think about was, What will happen to Mike? I didn't feel like celebrating, but the invitations had gone out, and relatives had already made plans to come in from out of town.

Bill and I went to the park one afternoon to try and relax. We sat by a lake for a while, watching gulls soar overhead. Lord, as these creatures are free, I prayed, keep Mike safe and free. Protect him.

Mike went about his usual routines. He seemed to be handling the whole thing better than Bill and me. God, I know you love Mike as much as we do. I'll try to trust that love.

One Sunday evening the three of us were sitting in the living room reading. I glanced up from my magazine and noticed Mike, engrossed in a history book. The look of wonderment on his face reminded me of when he was a six-year-old, fascinated by lights. That later led to our first big breakthrough with our son. Bill made up alphabet flashcards, and each time Mike identified a letter correctly, he got to switch on a string of Christmas lights. The "light game" captured Mike's interest like nothing else we'd tried before. From then on he began to speak, learned to read and write. And pray.

Remembering these and all the other breakthroughs over the years, I felt ashamed that I had ever doubted God. You've brought Mike this far, Lord. I know you'll see him through whatever comes next.

Two days before the party, our lawyer called. "I just heard from the D.A.," he said. "A man confessed to the April 15th robbery, and a string of others. The charges against Mike will be dismissed."

"Thank you," I whispered, overwhelmed. Thank you, God.

That Saturday at our party, Bill and I had much more than our golden anniversary to celebrate.

Mike hasn't said a lot about the ordeal, but not long ago he told Bill and me, "I still thank God for helping me last year." I still thank God for helping our son—our whole family—all the years of our lives. I worry a little, like any mother, but in the end, I trust they will be good years, every one of them.

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