Today kicks off Autism Awareness month.
Today we also remember the autistic children who have eloped and died.
A 2017 study found that almost a third of reported ASD (autism spectrum disorders) missing person cases related to wandering/elopement from 2011 to 2016 in the US ended in death or required medical attention. According to this study, accidental drowning caused over 70% of lethal outcomes, followed by fatal traffic injuries. Injuries or traumas found ranged from minor scrapes and bruises to non-fatal traffic injuries, near drownings, dehydration, and physical/sexual assaults after elopement.
Lethal outcomes to autism elopement occurred at a rate of about once a month on average in 2011 to about two to three times a month on average in 2015 and 2016. Children at ages 5 through 9 exhibited the highest number of deaths, while children under 5 faced the highest lethal risk with cases ending in death nearly 60% of the time.
Most people who elope or wander off were found in or near water, traffic, at a stranger’s residence, or in the woods. Low-sensory locations are also a common theme such as abandoned areas and vehicles, cornfields, farms, tree nurseries, libraries and other typically quiet settings.
People in this study were under different types of supervision when the elopement occurred, with non-parent supervision accounting for 45% of cases. Times of transition, commotion, and stress increased elopement risk, and those who were noted to be upset or agitated showed a higher risk of abruptly exiting into traffic or other high-threat situations.
Today is one of the saddest days of the year for many on the autism spectrum as well as family members and loved ones of children on the spectrum. It’s the day that we remember those autistic children who have wandered away, died, or drowned over the years.
Why are we remembering these kids?
Because children on the spectrum are attracted to high-sensory places. In fact, when a young autistic child goes missing, families are told to head straight to the nearest body of water to look for them.
It doesn’t take much water to drown. A little boy was with his father walking in a park last year and had gotten a bit ahead of Dad, still close enough where dad could see him, when suddenly the child bolted.
After several hours of searching, they found the child face down in a stream in six inches of water. Six inches of water is all it took.
When I mentioned I was writing this piece, people asked me why kids autistic children are drawn to water. It’s because when we’re in water we tend to feel relaxed and comfortable. For someone on the spectrum, like me, I can say that most of us like it because there’s even pressure on our bodies.
Young children only know that they feel comfortable; kids don’t think about the fact that they can’t breathe, and we all know the end result of trying to breathe underwater:
Death by drowning.
How can we prevent these tragedies from happening? If we know we have a runner, we can focus our attention keeping them close. We can teach them to swim. We need to alert the local authorities about our children who wander so they can prepare in the event of an elopement. We can get a service dog.
Most people think service start at $10,000 and skyrocket from there but that’s not true. My service dog, Tye, came from Dogs Nation in southwest Missouri and is a rescue dog, just as all dogs are at Dogs Nation.
They work on a donation basis (and not from the families that take the dogs). They rely on donations of food, flea and tick prevention, dog houses and financial donations.
A service dog can help block the child from entering the water and if a worst case scenario happens and the child hits the water they can alert parents or family members.
Shawn Abell of Dogs Nation told me a story of something that happened nearly a decade ago near her home: A child went into the water and a nearby dog, a non-service dog who was a retriever, did what he was trained to do and went into the water to retrieve the child and saved his life.
Today is an important day for parents, family members, and loved ones of children on the spectrum and a day to educate those that aren’t aware of just how serious a problem elopement is. Amongst deaths of young autistic children, 91% die by drowning and that is way too many. Even one is too many.
If you’re reading this, please share it with families of autistic children and their caregivers so that no child has to go through this again and so that next year we’re not remembering deaths from 2019.