Elopement behavior can lead to serious health and safety risks
Desmond Thomas, 11, had left his Houston, Texas house as his dad folded laundry around 7:30 pm last Wednesday night.
View slideshow: Autsim Wandering
Desmond than ran into the Katy Freeway outbound feeder road near Wilcrest where he was struck by a Lincoln Navigator. He was a student at Westwood Elementary School. Desmond was autistic.
According to AWAARE, a person with autism will wander to either get to something or away from something. Like dementia, persons with autism gravitate towards items of interest. This could be anything from a road sign they once saw to a neighbor’s pool to a merry-go-round in the park.
Half of the parents whose children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) reported in a survey that their kids have wandered off at least one time with half of that number reporting the children were gone long enough to cause concern. A new study reveals that these behaviors occur more frequently than in other children and some of which can result in serious danger.
Dr. Paul A. Law, MD, M.P.H., director medical informatics at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and colleagues conducted this new study. Researchers used online questionnaires concerning elopement frequency, associated traits and consequences and used the responses from parents of 1,218 children with ASD and 1,074 unaffected siblings.
The findings revealed 49% had wandered off at least once after the age of four; 26% were gone long enough to cause concern. Among the children with autism who went missing 24% were in danger of drowning and 65% were in danger of traffic injury.
In the age range of 4 to 7 years, 46% of children with ASD had wandered or run away at a rate that was four times higher than their unaffected siblings.
In the age range of 8 to 11 years, 27% of children with ASD had wandered in comparison to only 1% of their unaffected siblings.
The most common locations from which children had wandered from were in their own home or another home 74%, stores 40% and classroom or schools 29%.
When the children went missing the most common thing parents had said they did get in touch with neighbors 57%, calling police 35%, calling the school 30% and store staff 26%.
The situations for parents were highly stressful with parents who had children who had wandered off, 43% reported it kept them from sleeping well at night and 62% reported it kept the family from enjoying activities away from home.
Over the half of the parents 56% had said wandering off was one of the most stressful behaviors they had to cope with in caring for a child with ASD and 50% had reported they had not received help or guidance on how to deal with this behavior.
Dr. Law stated "Parents often fear being viewed as neglectful when their children leave from safe places. This study demonstrates that we urgently need interventions to address elopement and provide support to affected families.”
The researchers had written in their conclusion “Nearly half of children with ASD were reported to engage in elopement behavior, with a substantial number at risk for bodily harm. These results highlight the urgent need to develop interventions to reduce the risk of elopement, to support families coping with this issue, and to train child care professionals, educators, and first responders who are often involved when elopements occur.”
This study is published online ahead of print in the journal Pediatrics.
Last year, Dr. Coleen Boyle, PhD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta had announced the approval of the new medical diagnosis code for wandering.
The creation of this medical code was prompted by a request from the National Autism Association as part of their going efforts to raise awareness and create resources addressing the dangerous issue of wandering and elopement by individuals suffering from cognitive disabilities including autism.
According to the press release wandering incidents appear to be on the rise and the autism community has suffered unimaginable loss over the past several years.
National Autism Association Board Chair, Lori McIlwain, stated “It’s rare for even a week to go by without reading a news story of another child with autism who has gone missing.” “Far too many of these stories end in tragedy.”
“It is our hope that the recognition of wandering as a medical diagnosis will bring opportunities for the development of resources including training for schools and caregivers, emergency search personnel protocols, financial assistance for safety equipment and support and education for families.”
For more information on autism related wandering you can visit AWAARE.org.