An autistic child's surprising response to a local tragedy

Colorado has had a tough year. It felt to me like we were just beginning to move forward from the wildfires that ravaged our state and the theater shooting right in our ‘hood, when 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway was abducted. Every parent I know was completely on edge during that first horrific week, hoping for a miracle but fearing the worst – and everyone’s worst fears were realized when her dismembered body was discovered. I was glued to the news and social media, trying to just get my head around the notion that someone would abduct and brutally murder a 4th grader.

Paul and I sat all the kids down and talked to them after dinner several different nights, explaining as gently as we could about Jessica and what happened to her. We wanted them to hear the truth from us, rather than hearing about it from their friends at school, and it led to lots of great back-and-forth discussion about how to keep themselves safe and how to look out for one another. We live in an area full of kids who play together, and our children play outside and ride bikes fairly independently – or at least, they DID – Jessica’s abduction was a big wakeup call for a lot of us, I think. We have settled into what has become a habit among all the kids on the block – nobody plays or walks alone, and everyone checks in with their parents whenever they leave one of our houses. I don’t think any of us will ever feel fully safe again, but I feel fairly comfortable that my girls will be less likely to be victimized. My son is another story.

Children with autism often lack the sense of fear and danger that typical kids have, and my son is no exception. He has come a long way from where he was a couple of years ago, when he would scramble fifteen feet up in a tree in a matter of seconds, or wander into a stranger’s home while trick-or-treating, but he is still miles apart from a typical 4th grader in terms of knowing how to keep himself safe. One of the things we’ve stressed to our girls is that they really need to look out for their brother, and they are surprisingly good about it – even the little girls. Still, Paul and I are practically giving ourselves an ulcer over it. With his limited verbal skills, Pablo can’t really tell us how much of what we say to him is sinking in.

Around the time school started, Pablo lost his baby, “Junior,” aka Mustache Pig from Angry Birds. Junior was his favorite thing in the world. That little pig has been everywhere – buckled in a seatbelt on a road trip to California, up to the Hollywood sign, to school dozens of times – Pablo used to race around on his bicycle, with the pig’s tag clenched in his teeth. I kept thinking Junior would turn up when we reorganized the study (he didn’t), prepared for a big party (nope), or when we cleaned the garage (sorry.) He never reappeared. And Pablo didn’t mention him very often. Every few days, he’d say, “My Mustache Pig is still lost.” And we would move on with our day. I thought maybe Pablo was ready to just sort of…let him go, y’know?

Then one evening a couple of weeks ago, Pablo was looking through photos on my phone, and found a picture he himself had taken of his Mustache Pig. Immediately, he burst into tears, which is unusual for our boy. “Junior died,” he cried. “I let himself get lost. He’s just a baby. I’m his dad.” He cried and cried, and as I held him in my lap, I cried too. Immediately, I sent out a message to all my neighbors, asking them to take a look around their homes and yards to see if we could locate Junior. No luck. I decided Pablo might feel better with a new Junior, and I ordered one for him on Amazon. It arrived Friday. Here is Junior 2.0, waiting at the bus stop to meet Pablo.

When Pablo got off the bus, his eyes lit up and he squeezed the new Junior tightly against his eyes and forehead, just as he did with original Junior. He has been SO HAPPY with this new little pig, I have barely seen them apart. Notice the big smile, but see the tears in his eyes?

“I have a new baby now.” Pablo said to me when I took this picture. “My old junior is lost. I will never see him again. He was not safe. He was all by himself and got lost from me forever.” He went on and on. “Junior took some candy from a stranger. He got into a car with someone. He did not check with me. I will never stop missing my baby Junior. I have to watch this one so he doesn’t get lost from me.” His words broke my heart. It’s clear to me that at least some of what we’ve been telling the kids has been getting through to him, and it’s interesting and so touching to hear him share what’s on his mind.

My heart is broken a little bit. Broken for Jessica’s family, and broken for my kids who will always remember what happened to her. Even Pablo will remember.


  1. Sindy says:

    Glad Pablo has a new baby and that you were able to see he did understand some of what you’ve discussed with him.  

    1. hellraiser says:

      Me too, Sindy – any time he is able to verbalize what’s going on in his head, I pay attention!

      1. hellraiser says:

        Ha – I guess it didn’t occur to me that my name here would show up as “hellraiser” – that is a crackup.

  2. Anthony Rizzuto says:

    I feel like I have known you for a hundred years, and yet sometimes I don’t know you at all!   I’m so grateful to be back in touch….that “reconnection” is grounding to me, and helps me remember that not everyone from my hometown is a narrow-minded ass-hat.  
    I have read a few of your pieces on “lalagirl”, but now, I’m sure to read more.  I love reading your words; I even hear your voice as I read them, and can even imagine your inflection and tone.  You’re a great writer!  And thanks for doing your part to educate the “global community” so to speak, via your own very special perspective.   Big hugs and kisses!

    1. Laura says:

      Big hugs and kisses to you as well, my favorite Tony. You brighten my life in so many ways. Your own work in the community as an advocate and champion for the rights of others is a constant inspiration to me. Thanks for being such a beautiful, sassy bitch. Love you!

  3. Jo says:

    Gosh, how hard it must have been to try and connect with Pablo over this tragedy. I’m so pleased he loves his new Junior! Big hugs xx

    1. Laura says:

      Thanks, Jo! He does seem to love it! I was glad it was still available on Amazon; seems like all the Angry Birds stuff I find nowadays is Space-themed or Star Wars-themed.

  4. This is a beautiful post. It brought tears to my eyes. I am always amazed by children and what goes through their little heads of theirs. Thank you for sharing this with us. It’s great to meet you.

    And like you, I was on the edge over Jessica. I held my children even closer. What a devastating tragedy.

    1. Laura says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Rebecca. I am constantly surprised and sometimes even floored when I realize how wise my children are. Kids are just so unique in how they see the world. Nice to meet you as well. 

  5. Loretta says:

    Now that I’m crying and my kids are looking at me from the other room like I’ve lost my mind,. Pablo is a sweet and wonderful kid, and you are a sweet and wonderful Mom. He reminds me so much of my Ethan when he was that age, they truly see the world through different eyes than the rest of us. (((Love and hugs for you both)))

  6. Laura says:

    Thanks, Retta – I know you can relate!

  7. Emily says:

    What a sweet son! I spent a year working with autistic women and I was always amazed at what they picked up on!

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