As you might recall from my previous ramble on service dogs, I mentioned that one of the things they help with is wandering. This is one topic that’s been kind of hot lately, especially since a friend of mine’s son died recently and the way his body was found resonates way too strongly with one of my greatest nightmares. You see he was found after being reported missing by a local body of water.
The unfortunate fact is that people who have autism tend to wander away. And not just wander away but do so in a manner that psychologists and law enforcement agencies call eloping. In fact they are 8 times more likely to do so than their neurotypical siblings, and what makes it worse is that over a third of these that do wander or elope are not able to communicate their name, home address, or even phone number. Still others are like my son who could as long as he was calm enough, but if he gets too upset or frightened then any ability to communicate in a clear and effective manner goes right out the window and repeated questioning, especially by strangers, is just likely to make him even more upset. All of which means that even if my son was found safe and sound by the police, attempts by them to find out what happened and where he lives are most likely going to be entirely futile.
So why do autistic children, and even autistic adults wander away from home or places of safety? Truthfully no one is really sure. Some may do it because they’ve seen or heard something that caught their interest such as a pretty bird, a set of train tracks, or a body of water that looks enticing. One example of this type of behavior is the case of an 11 year old girl with Asperger’s (a form of high functioning autism) who disappeared while riding her bike only to be found hip deep in alligator infested waters deep in the Florida swamplands. It seems that the girl was a nature lover who spotted something that she wanted to take a picture of and got so engrossed in what she was taking pictures of that she never noticed where she was or her danger until it was too late and she had no idea how to get back to her bike.
Another case involved a 7 year old boy who wondered away from the playground at his school. Fueled by a fascination of exit signs, the child apparently took off through the woods and was headed towards the highway when a man stopped him and tried to get him back to his school safely. However the nearest school was not his and the officials there had no idea who this child was, so they called the police. Since the child in this story couldn’t communicate effectively who he was, and since his school for some reason or other had never called the police or the child’s mother to report him missing, the police were reduced to going school to school trying to figure out who he was and where he belonged.
Still others on the autism spectrum seem to being fleeing something. Whether that something is something they fear, or just something that is causing their minds and senses to overload; the result is the same. They think of nothing but getting away from whatever is causing too much stress for them to handle with absolutely no thought given to where they are going except to get to some thing or place calming and soothing to their overloaded systems. Either way they all too often end up in dangerous situations where no one who knows them knows where they are, and let’s be honest here. Good Samaritans like the man in the last example are all too rare in todays world. Indeed 2 out 3 parents of elopers report that their kids had a “close call” in traffic before they were returned to safety and 32% or more of eloping children have a “close call” with possible drowning. Which may also help explain the results of a recent Danish study that found that the mortality rate among those on the Autism Spectrum is twice as high as the general population.
Then there’s the often noted attraction those with autism seem to have for water. Many theories have been brought forward and debated as to why this attraction exists, but in all honesty no one really knows for sure. The most commonly accepted theory seems to that water helps calm the autistic child or adult partly through the gentle, repetitive patterns of reflections and waves as well as the even pressure it puts on their bodies. As of yet though there’s just not enough data to really tell what the attraction is, we just know that it’s reported in a large number of cases; which may be why a California study found that the majority of accidental deaths among those on the Autism Spectrum are due to drowning. As for myself, I only know that my son is rarely happier than when he’s playing at the local pool or in the lake at his grandmother’s house.
So what can be done to help keep our children safe? Well, there are some things, but this ramble is already starting to resemble a book. Besides, my son's bus should be here any minute now; so I think I'll continue this on Monday. Until then gentle reader, may God watch over you and yours.