It happens quickly: A child on the autism spectrum bolts from supervision and disappears – an emergency called “autism elopement.” While any child can wander off, children on the autism spectrum face particular risks. These include the lure of water and the risk of drowning.
Some youngsters on the spectrum will follow this strong attraction to water and head for a nearby pond, river, or swimming pool. Such circumstances have made drowning a leading cause of death for these missing youths.
Autism elopement can happen any time. Summer can be especially dangerous. When the weather warms, the risk of drowning death rises, says Lori McIlwain, cofounder of the National Autism Association.
“The fatality risk is higher in May, June, July for that child to exit the setting unnoticed, especially if there’s an outdoor gathering and then they go directly to water,” Ms. McIlwain says. For instance, she says children can dart away during outdoor play, barbecues, gatherings, and other activities. Or they might wander off while vacationing near a beach or hotel pool.
Many people don’t know about this risk, including some families with youngsters on the autism spectrum. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is working to change that – and find solutions.
About 12 years ago, “we started noticing a very disturbing trend that children with autism were going missing and they were having grave results,” says John Bischoff, vice president of the Center’s Missing Children Division.
The Center analyzed a decade of data on accidental deaths of children on the autism spectrum. Drowning was the #1 cause, accounting for 84% of those deaths.
In 2012, researchers reported on autism and wandering in the journal Pediatrics. They analyzed answers from about 1,000 families to an online survey on the topic. Parents who had children on the spectrum and children not on the spectrum responded. Nearly half of the parents said their child with autism had tried to wander off after age 4, and 26% had gone missing long enough to cause concern.
“Of those who went missing, 24% were in danger of drowning and 65% were in danger of traffic injury,” the researchers wrote. Children on the spectrum might also be drawn to traffic signs, highways, fire trucks, and trains.
In comparison, brothers and sisters of all ages who were not on the spectrum were much less likely to have wandered off.
Seeking a quiet place
It’s not entirely clear why children with autism are so drawn to water, Ms. McIlwain says. But there are some clues.
“What we see is that these children exit settings that are usually bothersome,” Ms. McIlwain says. “[Those settings are] loud, with a high amount of stimuli or stress or commotion, and they go to a quiet place, usually water in a quiet area. It’s calm. It’s peaceful.”
Water isn’t the only dangerous draw. When autism elopement happens, “they also go to the woods, they go to abandoned vehicles,” she says. “So any quiet thing is usually where they will head.”