In a sample of 1,200 children with autism, 49% had wandered, bolted or "eloped" at least once after age 4; 26% went missing long enough to cause their family concern. By comparison, only 13% of 1,076 siblings without autism had ever wandered off at or after age 4, developmentally the age when such behavior becomes less common, finds the study published today in Pediatrics. Among children with autism who went missing, 65% had close calls with traffic; 24% were in danger of drowning.
"Elopement is one of the very few problems in autism that is life-threatening," says pediatrician Paul Law.... "It is probably one of the leading, if not the leading, causes of death in children with autism," he says.
- USA Today 10/8/12
Thursday was a snow day. You know, because school being closed for a week for Frankenstorm and then again Tuesday for Election Day wasn't enough of a disruption to our routine. So Ryan was playing in the snow in our yard, and I was wandering in and out of the house, sometimes playing with him, sometimes enjoying being warm with a cup of tea like a civilized grown-up. I marveled at the fact that I could leave him in the yard to play on his own - a huge change from last winter, when we lived in a 9th floor apartment and I had to watch him constantly to make sure he wasn't running off somewhere.
So he's playing outside, and I suggested, "Would you like to go sledding? I'll go inside and look up where we can go, and then we can get your snow pants and go sledding later." I went to the computer, looked at maps, figured out a likely place to sled. I did a few of minutes of work, as long as Ryan was content playing outside. Then I went to check on him.
And he was gone.
I searched the back yard, the front yard, inside the house. I looked for footprints in the snow that would indicate where he had gone. No clues.
Then I noticed the sled was missing from the porch. And I realized that all Ryan had heard me say before was "Would you like to go sledding." So he had taken the sled in search of a hill.
I suppressed a heart attack and thought like Ryan. Wednesday afternoon, he and I had taken a walk around the neighborhood looking for someplace to go sledding; we found nothing, and we got pelted with icy wind the whole mile we ended up walking. So using Ryan logic, I figured he had probably taken off on the same route we had walked the previous day. I got in my car and drove slowly through the neighborhood, retracing our Wednesday steps.
And there he was, at the halfway point of the route, just hanging out on the side of the road with a sled.
I got out of the car and started shouting, "What the hell were you thinking?" while pulling him into a hug. He clearly had no idea he had done anything wrong.
"Sledding," he explained.
I threw his sled into the car and told him to get in.
"Where are my snow pants?" he asked.
"They're at home. Where you're supposed to be."
I made a speech about how he can't leave our yard without telling me where he's going; he ignored me and requested hot chocolate.
An hour later, I tried explaining the problem again.
"When you left home before, I didn't know where you were, and I was very worried."
Something about this registered with him. His face looked concerned and surprised, and he gave me the most sincere "I'm sorry, Mommy" he could muster.
But I know this won't stop him from going off on his own in the future. The police have brought him back to me before, and I won't be surprised if something similar happens again.
My mother suggested I have a RFID chip implanted in Ryan's ear. I'm investigating more realistic solutions first.