Autism Awareness Month: Children with Autism and Wandering

It’s April 1st – the first day of Autism Awareness Month. For those without autism in their lives – this month may mean 30 days of blue and/or puzzle pieces. For others it will mean something more.
My son, Norrin, has autism. It’s autism awareness every day of the year in our home. And one of the things that I am most aware of is: wandering. It’s on the forefront of my mind every time we walk out the door and every moment Norrin’s not with me. It’s the thing that keeps me up at night and the reason why I am hesitant to let go of his hand when out in public. It’s the reason why I am cautious about child care and one of the reasons why I pulled him out of public school.
Last October, 14-year old Avonte Oquendo (autistic and non-verbal) walked out of his Long Island City (Queens, NYC) public school. The story hit me hard. It hit the city of New York hard. There were subway announcements for months and missing posters with Avonte’s face everywhere. There were search parties and news stories. As a city, as parents – we held on to hope. Looking, praying and always hoping. Even as the weather grew colder. We held on to hope.
It was a bitter cold January morning when I heard the news of Avonte. I stopped, sat on the sofa and I cried as the newscaster reported Avonte’s sneaker along the waterfront…his remains being pulled out of the water in pieces. My heart ached for his mother and family. Because I can’t even imagine living through that kind of loss. It’s a loss no mother should ever have to endure.
But Avonte is only one boy. There are many others autistic children who have suffered the same fate. There are many other mothers mourning their children. Autism and wandering is a real issue and a valid concern.
If you are not familiar with autism and/or wandering, here are some facts you should know from, an organization dedicated to prevent wandering incidents and deaths within the autism community:

Children with ASD are eight times more likely to [wander] between the ages of 7 and 10 than their typically-developing [children]. Dangers associated with wandering include drowning, getting struck by a vehicle, falling from a high place, dehydration, hyperthermia, abduction, victimization and assault.

According to data released in April 2011 by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) through the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI):
  • Roughly half, or 49%, of children with a autism attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings
  • More than one third of children with autism who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
  • Two in three parents of elopers reported their missing children had a “close call” with a traffic injury
  • 32% of parents reported a “close call” with a possible drowning

In 2012, the National Autism Association found that from 2009 to 2011,accidental drowning accounted for 91% total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism subsequent to wandering, and that 23% of total wandering-related deaths occurred while the child was in the care of someone other than a parent.

In honor of Autism Awareness Month and to shed light on a very real issue in the autism community, a Candlelight Vigil for Autistic Children Who Lost Their Lives After Wandering is being held today. This vigil is being organized (via social media) to spread awareness of the very real issue of wandering behavior in autistic children and the unspeakable tragedies that can, and have occurred as a result. Please join us in respectful remembrance of the children who have died. (click here)
Today I’m remembering Avonte Oquendo: a boy I never knew, but whose name and face I’ll never forget.

What precautions can we take? a site dedicated to prevent wandering within the Autism Community has created materials that focuses on wandering-prevention, and first-responder notification:

The National Autism Association has also created two new safety toolkits:

Other resources:
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