When my son Sam was a small child, he would often disappear. I never knew why. Sam had inscrutable plans; he seemed to be in search of something, but he couldn’t, or didn’t, tell us what. Sometimes he set off, on his own, from the house.
If I locked the doors, he would find a window to climb out of. Other times we’d be out on a walk, when Sam — strong, fit and very fast — would simply run off.
The worst time was during a trip to Hereford, a town he didn’t know. After a couple of hours of frantic searching, the police found Sam dancing on the bank of the fast-flowing River Wye.
He’s a grown, 27-year-old man now, but I can still recall every slow ticking minute of that fear.
Facing day-to-day challenges: Charlotte Moore and her sons George (left) and Sam
Every parent, of course, dreads the disappearance of a child more than anything else. But when your child has no means of seeking help, of extricating themselves from a difficult situation, or even of understanding that they are in danger in the first place, that fear is beyond measure.
For Sam has autism, with associated learning difficulties, as does his older brother George, who’s 29.
I can hardly bear to think, therefore, of how poor Nora Quoirin’s parents felt when they entered her hotel room, nearly two weeks ago, and found her empty bed.
Nora was 15, and while her learning difficulties were completely different to those of Sam and George — with limited communication and comprehension — like them, she was as vulnerable as an infant.
While most parents can take small comfort from knowing that brushes with danger might, eventually, teach children life lessons, Sam and George never will.
When little Sam disappeared he was never, in his opinion, lost and therefore he was never frightened. It was I who had lost him.
Sam had inscrutable plans; he seemed to be in search of something, but he couldn’t, or didn’t, tell us what. Sometimes he set off, on his own, from the house (pictured: Charlotte with George [checked shirt], Sam [black shirt] and Jake)
You can understand why some parents of children with special needs might retreat from the world, to keep them safely at home for their whole lives, making sure they are cleaned, fed and watered, but not much else. Like the Quoirins, I could never do that.
At times it can be immensely challenging. They have an extensive timetable to keep them physically and mentally healthy: art, music, swimming, cycling, golf, trampolining, shopping, socialising (up to a point) in cafes or visiting people at home.
To enable all this to happen, I place great trust in a great many people who look after them. I have to; the alternative would be to have my sons sitting about at home all day, physically safe, but vegetating.
Every morning, in a sense, I send them off into the unknown. I close my mind to possible disasters.
The caregivers are all cheery, resourceful people who have George and Sam’s best interests at heart, but if — God forbid — one of the carers had a heart attack at the wheel of the car, or broke their leg on a country walk, my sons would have no idea what to do.
Nora Quoirin was missing in the Malaysian jungle for ten days before her body was found
Sam speaks very little. He understands much of what is said to him, but would not be able to give any useful information to a policeman or passer-by. Sam’s variant of autism means that he is socially isolated. He does not recognise that other human beings are sources of help or comfort.
Equally, he does not know that humans could be dangerous. He has no concept of ‘stranger danger’ because, as far as I can tell, he has no way of defining what a stranger is.
George, by contrast, speaks clearly. He is relatively socially active. He forms strong attachments to people. Unlike Sam, he does know that people help him. In fact, he’s wholly reliant on help and will, for instance, carry on brushing his teeth until somebody tells him to stop. But he would put his trust in anyone, would get into any vehicle at anyone’s request, would swallow any drug that he was offered.
In the event of emergency, George’s clear speech and large vocabulary would be of little use, because he only talks about the things that he wants to talk about: pop music, modes of transport, eye colour.
I worry, of course I do, but most of the time, I can put the ‘what ifs?’ out of my mind. Disasters are, after all, very rare.
Day after day, my sons are delivered home safe and well. But when something like Nora’s disappearance happens, I am sharply reminded that, when it comes down to it, they rely on me to make decisions that will keep them safe, almost as much as they did on the day of their births.
What’s difficult for anyone who’s never experienced life with a special needs child to understand is that it can be so hard to know when something is wrong.
You won’t be told there’s a problem, either because your child can’t express themselves, they haven’t identified the problem or — and this is especially true with autism — because they don’t know their parent doesn’t already know.
Day after day, my sons are delivered home safe and well. But when something like Nora’s disappearance happens, I am sharply reminded that, when it comes down to it, they rely on me to make decisions that will keep them safe (pictured: Nora Quoirin’s parents, Meabh Jaseprine Quoirin and Sebastien Quoirin talking to the police during search and rescue operations)
George regards me as omnipotent and omniscient. He will endure a discomfort — a blister, an insect bite — in silence, waiting for me to do something about it, because he assumes that I am also experiencing what he is experiencing.
Nora had been on many family holidays before. Her parents knew, from observation, that she was very unlikely to wander off. I would say the same about George who always likes to know where I am and stays within my orbit.
And while it’s been many years since I’ve had to make the nerve-racking decision about how long I could wait for Sam to return before calling the police (who, I have to say, were always extremely helpful and non-judgmental), there is still no certainty.
Pictured: Charlotte’s son Sam, as a young child
My observations of both my sons right now tell me that they won’t wander, but things can suddenly change. We need to be brave.
We’d more or less given up on travelling with George and Sam, because the difficulties seemed so great. But last year we took them to Glen Affric in the Scottish Highlands, to the wild and beautiful remains of the ancient Caledon Forest.
The trip, with a special needs group, was meticulously planned and risk-assessed — and involved a lot of help — but nevertheless, it was a big step into the unknown.
As a test of our nerve and resourcefulness, it was well worth it. We came home with a new confidence as to what was possible.
Nora Quoirin was inexpressibly precious to her parents. Her death reminded me, with a stab, of how deeply I love my sons, how important their ‘otherness’ is in enlarging my understanding of life.
If I were to lose either of them, nothing would ever be the same. But the dreadful tragedy that befell the Quoirins remains highly unusual and extremely unlucky.
Taking Nora to Malaysia was an extension of their love for her, to continue the enrichment of shared experience that was at the heart of their life as a family.
My heart goes out to them.
- George And Sam by Charlotte Moore (Penguin, £9.99).