Survival Story: The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Cry Help

Eight-year-old Robert was nonverbal with an autism spectrum disorder, so when he vanished in a Virginia state park and prompted the largest manhunt in state history, rescuers knew that finding him wouldn't be easy. They were right.

By Dean King from Outside magazine

Survival Story: The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Cry HelpErika Larsen
A ball of fire with twinkling blue eyes, Robert Arthur Wood Jr., a four-foot-six, 70-pound eight-year-old, gives as good as he gets when he and his brother, Ryan, a year younger, scrap over a toy. And yet Robert can’t talk, swim, sit still for a movie, or use the bathroom by himself. He happens to be severely autistic.

Ryan, also autistic but less so, hugs and kisses his brother. Robert is not as affectionate. But like many children with autism, Robert is fearless. As a toddler, he liked to climb on top of the television and the refrigerator. He also likes to wander. At Walmart, Robert’s mother, Barbara Locker, still puts him in the shopping cart. If he’s not held by the hand or by his shirt, he might run off.

That’s what happened on October 23, 2011, a warm Sunday afternoon. After lunch, the boys’ father, Robert Wood Sr., 34, and his girlfriend (Wood and Locker are separated) took Robert and Ryan for a walk at 80-acre North Anna Battlefield Park, in Virginia, 15 minutes from the boys’ home in Ruther Glen. This was no ordinary walk in the park. The hilly green thickets of central Virginia, where Grant vied with Lee in an epic battle for nearby Richmond, are prickly and hardscrabble, with skin-ripping greenbrier and blackberry bushes, not to mention coyotes and bobcats. In this land of ravines, swamps, mosquitoes, and water moccasins, the Union general soon discovered, inhospitality was endemic.

Inside the park, narrow paths tunnel through dense woods. A warren of Confederate fortification leads to a bluff—with no guardrails—that plummets 90 feet. Below, the North Anna River rumbles through the boulders and class-three rapids of Falls Hole. Nothing separates the park’s other boundaries from a massive open gravel quarry, with its clatter of industrial dump trucks, bulldozers, and freight trains and the roar of controlled explosions. It’s a fantasyland for any boy, autistic or not.

At around 2:30 p.m., while the group was resting after a mile-long walk, Robert ran down a spur trail. Somehow both adults missed seeing him take off. Wearing a red long-sleeved shirt, blue pants, and blue tennis shoes, Robert would not have been difficult to spot. Yet he vanished.
Within an hour, the sheriff’s department was searching the area with canine teams. The dogs tracked Robert going toward the river. Like many autistic children, Robert is obsessed with water. Autistic kids can be hypersensitive to certain stimuli, and some experts believe that water is soothing to them. Though Robert can’t swim, he thinks he can.

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