In the last seven days, there have been two intense searches — one in California and one in Florida — for missing children with autism. Sadly, both of these children were found deceased in nearby water. On Friday, another child with autism went missing in Kentucky, but was pulled to safety from a creek near his home.
Autism-related wandering is not uncommon, and many of these children go straight to nearby water. According to recent data, 49% of children have wandered away from safe environments, such as homes, schools, public places, day camps, and other non-home settings.
Based on NAA’s monitoring of missing person cases, autism-related wandering incidents happen most:
- During warmer months
- During holidays such as Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and other warm-climate holidays
- During family gatherings, other gatherings, or outdoor activities
- Camping & hiking outings
- Visits to non-home settings, such as a friend’s home or vacation setting
- After a family moves to a new home
- When adjustments have been made to a home to accommodate warmer weather, especially window screens, window fan units, A/C units and screen doors.
- During classroom transitions from one classroom to another, or during other transitions.
- During times of stress or when escalation triggers arise (typically the child/adult will bolt)
If a child with autism is missing, we strongly suggest that searchers be immediately dispatched to nearby water. Water and traffic-related fatalities remain the leading causes of death following wandering/bolting incidents in children & some adults with autism.
The National Autism Association has compiled this Caregiver Checklist (also pasted below) to help prevent wandering incidents. We urge all caregivers to have this checklist on hand, and follow its suggestions. This document is part of our Big Red Safety Toolkit, which can be downloaded here. Please use and share these resources widely, help us reach as many families as possible.
Because of recent cases, there are many questions as to what is being done to prevent more tragedies. Please know that as parents of children who have gone missing in the past, we are doing everything we can to raise awareness and provide prevention & response tools to those in need. Specifically, NAA has:
- Established the Big Red Safety Box Program in 2011 that provides families with prevention tools and educational materials. For more information, visit https://nationalautismassociation.org/big-red-safety-box/
- Created the AWAARE Collaboration, and online toolkits for caregivers and first responders. Both are free for download and can be found at: http://awaare.org
- Initiated a request for a medical diagnostic code for wandering, which went into effect in October of 2011. For more, visit http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/code.html
- Provided $100,000 worth of grants to law enforcement agencies in need of Project Lifesaver Tracking equipment. For more on tracking technology, visit http://www.projectlifesaver.org or https://www.safetynetbylojack.com
- Worked with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to establish federal search-and-rescue guidelines specific to children with special needs. Please visit this link, print and share this document with your local police, sheriff and fire departments.
- In 2010, requested formal data on autism-related wandering, which led to the 2012 study released in Pediatrics
- Been actively working since 2008 to get children with disabilities added to AMBER Alert criteria
- In 2012, released our own study on lethal outcomes related to wandering, which found that 91% of our children died from drowning
- Reached out to YMCA headquarters requesting a listing of Y’s across the country that provide special-needs swimming lessons. This list can be found at https://nationalautismassociation.org/resources/autism-safety-facts/swimming-instructions/
- Provided first-responder training across the country, and in Canada
- Produced this video for first responders: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auJvlpWhb5E
NAA continues to share safety reminders on our Facebook page, and ask that posts related to “search water first” not be debated as this confuses caregivers. It is undeniable, based on research, deaths, and ongoing cases, that searching nearby water sources first is vitally important for our missing children with autism.
We also strongly discourage parent blame, criticism, and judgment in relation to the wandering issue. It is unfounded and unproductive. For more related to parent blame, please read: https://nationalautismassociation.org/the-wrong-questions-are-being-asked-about-mikaela-lynch/.
Each time a child or adult goes missing in our community, we hope and pray around the clock for a safe recovery. Children like Robbie Wood, Nadia Bloom, and others who have beat the odds give us significant hope and act as a continual reminder to never give up on our children & adults with autism.
With deepest sympathies for these families, we will continue to put forth every effort to prevent more tragedies in our beloved community.
The NAA Team
- I Have Secured My Home (Adequate Locks, Hook & Eye Chains, Inexpensive Door Chimes, Stop Signs on all doors/windows/gates, Home Security System if able, Fencing Yard if able)
- I’ve Identified Reasons Why My Child Wanders, & Am Teaching My Child About Wandering Dangers and Ways to Stay Safe
- I Have Enrolled My Child Into Swimming Lessons (YMCA listing of special needs lessons)
- I Have Looked Into Tracking Devices
- I Have Alerted My Trusted Neighbors
- I Have Alerted My Local First Responders About My Child, Nearby Water Sources, & Reverse 911 (free for law enforcement — achildismissing.org)
- I Have Talked To My Child’s Doctor About the Wandering Diagnostic Code V40.31 (use code only if necessary)
- I Have Obtained A Wearable ID For My Child That Contains All Of My Contact Information
- I Have Completed My Family Wandering Emergency Plan (awaare.org)
- I Will Initiate A “Tag, You’re It” System During Family Gatherings, Commotion, Transitions (tagging a responsible adult to monitor your loved one at all times)
- I Will Monitor Any Changes In My Home’s Security, Especially When Warmer Weather Or Seasonal Transitions Affect My Home’s Layout (Windows, Screen Doors/Windows, Window Units)
- I Will Remain On High Alert After Moving To A New Home, On Summer Holidays Such As Memorial Day, Labor Day, 4th Of July, & During Visits To Friends/Family’s Homes, Public Places, Parks, Other Non-Home Settings
- I Have Addressed Wandering At School, Summer Camp, And Other External Settings
- I Continue To Reassess As My Child Grows and/or Learns New Ways To Possibly Exit
- I Continue To Document Actions Taken To Protect My Loved One
The above information is included in NAA’s Big Red Safety Toolkit available for download here.