September 02, 1996 12:00 PM

LAST WEEK, 10-YEAR-OLD TAYLOR Touchstone stepped to the grassy edge of Turtle Creek in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and fearlessly threw himself into the cool, green water.

An everyday rite of summer? More like a miracle, says Taylor’s father, real estate lawyer Ray Touchstone, 50. Just three weeks earlier, Taylor, who is autistic, had disappeared in these same waters during a family swimming trip. While about 200 searchers scoured the forbidding East Bay River Swamp, Taylor spent four days without food, shelter or human contact, apparently swimming and floating through a treacherous morass of briars, mud and stagnant water alive with alligators and poisonous snakes. Finally, on Aug. 11, Taylor was fished from the water by a boater some 14 miles from the spot where he had originally disappeared—naked, near exhaustion, but still swimming.

After an ordeal like that, the average fifth grader might hesitate to go near the water, but Taylor has never been average. According to his mother, Suzanne, 42, “whatever helped him survive in that swamp is what helps him survive every day.” Seven years ago, Taylor was diagnosed with moderate autism, a neurological disorder that impairs communication and reasoning. Because of his condition, the active youngster with a taste for video games and Cheetos can’t describe in words how he survived in the wild. All he will say is that he saw “lots of fish.” But Suzanne believes the exaggerated concentration that characterizes Taylor’s condition may have saved his life. At home, she says, Taylor, who attends a school for autistic children, often stares for hours at an ordinary piece of string; alone in the gloomy swamp, she speculates, he may have fixated so completely on one detail—his missing swimming trunks—that he managed to block out fear and hunger. Experts in autism concur.

Taylor’s amazing feat of survival began under the most ordinary circumstances. On Aug. 7, Suzanne dropped off Taylor, his sister Jayne, 12, and two friends at Turtle Creek, a shady stream within the grounds of Eglin Air Force Base, eight miles from the Touchstone house in Fort Walton Beach. (Ray, who is separated from Suzanne, rents an apartment nearby.) As on many previous swimming trips, the children planned to float in the stream’s lazy current and rendezvous with Suzanne, waiting at a clearing 200 yards downstream. Everything went smoothly until Taylor, ignoring shouts from his mother, swam past the clearing and out of sight, into an area of sunken trees and swamp vegetation.

It was by no means a trivial error. Just last year, four Army Rangers became lost in the dense undergrowth during a training exercise and died of hypothermia. Wild animals add to the peril. “There are every sort of critter you can imagine out there—’gators, water moccasins, even Florida black bears,” says Rick Hord, an Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputy.

Once Taylor disappeared into the brackish swamp, Suzanne borrowed a cellular phone to summon help. Within hours, a 12-person team including police and Army Rangers stationed at nearby Camp Rudder had begun wading through shallow waters looking for Taylor. At night, Air Force helicopters fitted with infrared tracking devices hovered overhead, hoping to detect heat from the boy’s body. But by Saturday—60 hours after their son had disappeared without a trace—Ray and Suzanne prepared themselves for the worst. “They brought in cadaver dogs,” Ray recalls. “That was grim.”

A day passed. Then, early Sunday morning, Jimmy Potts, 33, who was fishing for bass, caught sight of a swimmer calmly treading water in East Bay River. Potts, a chemical plant maintenance manager, wondered why a camper would have ventured to the remote spot. Suddenly, he recognized Taylor from news reports. “I just pulled right up to him, told him his mom and dad were looking for him and that it was time to go home,” says Potts. “You couldn’t put a finger on that child without finding a scrape.”

Taylor’s nicks and cuts have started to heal, but doctors can’t predict with certainty whether he will have any memory of his days in Turtle Creek. Suzanne and Ray say they try to shelter their son from harm but without denying him the chance to lead a normal childhood. Sometimes that means retrieving Taylor from the nearby grocery store, where he once tried to clean the floor with his hands, or relying on neighbors to point him in the direction of home. And sometimes it even means saying yes when Taylor, once again, wants to go swimming. “I don’t have a clue what goes through his head,” says Suzanne with resignation. “You just have to go on instinct.”


FRAN BRENNAN in Fort Walton Beach

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