Wandering into Dangerous Waters – What Every Parent Should Know about Autism
In the heat of late summer and early fall, spending time around pools and lakes is a common past-time for families, but if you are a parent of a child with autism, this leisure activity can quickly turn deadly.
Recently, a 3-year-old girl wandered away from her grandmother’s home in Massachusetts, and a frantic search began. Within an hour, she was found unresponsive in a nearby pond, and died the following day. Little Alyvia Navarro’s death is unfortunately all too common in the autism community. A 5-year-old in Kansas; a 9-year-old in California; an 11-year-old in Minnesota – all wandered away from their homes and their bodies were recovered in nearby lakes, creeks and rivers. Even a shallow pond or puddle can be deadly.
While water is a concern for any parent, it’s important to remember that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are usually fascinated with water, and nearly 50% of children with ASD are prone to wandering.
This tragic phenomenon is known by various names – wandering is one of the most common, though elopement and bolting are other terms frequently used to describe what nearly half of children with autism experience. These children often have little to no sense of danger, according to the National Autism Association, and combined with their enchantment of water, summer can prove a dangerous time for children on the spectrum. In fact, drowning is the leading cause of death in children with ASD. According to the association, accidental drownings between 2009-2011 accounted for 91% of U.S. deaths reported in children with autism under age 15. Of these deaths, 68% happened in a nearby pond, lake, creek or river.
It is crucial for pediatricians to educate all caregivers of children diagnosed with autism, even those who don’t feel their child is prone to wandering behavior, according to The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration. AWAARE is a working group of six national nonprofit autism organizations whose mission is to prevent autism-related wandering incidents and deaths.
If a child with autism is missing, caregivers should immediately search areas that pose the highest threats, such as nearby water. AWAARE also recommends during times of commotion like family gatherings, when a higher number of incidents occur, to use a “tag, you’re it” system to assign one responsible adult to closely supervise the child during an agreed-upon period of time.
Other recommendations include providing a doctor’s letter educating the child’s school or summer camp about the risk, as well as installing chimes on all doors and windows at home. It is also recommended to provide swimming lessons to young children and inquire about any existing tracking technology available through local law enforcement.
⅓ of children with autism who wander are rarely or never able to communicate their address and phone number, according to the National Autism Association. Physicians and pediatricians should encourage families to have their children wear IDs, such as RoadID.com and MedicAlert.org, though shoe IDs may be recommended for children who have tactile sensitivities.
To create a family wandering emergency plan or to review other helpful downloadable materials, visit www.nationalautismassociation.org.