Managing Editor's Note: Thank you to Lori McIlwain and all of our friends at National Autism Association for this urgent message to the American public about wandering, autism and tragedy.
By Lori McIlwain
The Day My Son Went Missing Wandering Is a Major Concern for Parents of Children With Autism
NOW in its sixth week, the search for Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy from Queens with autism, is shining a light on the issue of wandering among people with autism. On Oct. 4, Avonte managed to slip away after lunch from his school in Long Island City — even though he was known to wander during classroom transitions.
While most people associate wandering with elderly sufferers from Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 49 percent of children with autism were prone to the behavior. Given the prevalence of autism — at one in 88 children, or one in 50 school-age children — it’s clear this is an everyday concern for many thousands of parents.
The day Avonte went missing, a Friday, a 12-year-old boy with autism was in a medically induced coma in Oakland, Calif. According to reports, he had wandered from his mother in a parking lot and entered eastbound traffic on I-580, where he was struck by at least one vehicle. By Sunday, another child with autism had gone missing: 5-year-old Devonte Dye wandered from his grandparents’ home in southeast Missouri. Tragically, he was found the next day, drowned, in a slough near the St. Francis River.
Since 2011, 41 American children with autism have died after wandering, or “bolting,” from caregivers. Water is often a fatal draw for these children. Since April of this year, 14 out of 16 deaths were from drowning.
Even as a campaigner, I did not appreciate the full magnitude of the issue until my own child went missing in 2007. Connor was 7 years old when he left his schoolyard, unnoticed, through an unlocked gate and made his way toward a four-lane highway.
Many children with autism have particular fascinations, and Connor’s is with highway exit signs. For our family, driving up and down the interstate was a fun day out. We never suspected he’d attempt to get there on foot.
Luckily, a passing driver noticed our son; the driver turned around, just in case. When Connor failed to answer a few basic questions, he was taken to another nearby school. That school called the police. The police had no idea how to deal with Connor: An officer mistook our mostly nonverbal child for a defiant rule-breaker who needed some “tough love.”
Finally, a staff member at the school reached me, but exactly how long Connor had been missing by the time I got to him, no one could tell me. Connor was hysterical, shaking. I scooped him up in a hug, whispering through my own tears, “You’re O.K.”
That was our big wake-up call, but it didn’t end there. Connor’s wandering had started in day care and continued through school. He slipped out during classroom transitions, as Avonte did. We found ourselves keeping Connor home on days we feared it might be easier for him to slip away. Here I was, an advocate for others, yet I could not keep my own child safe.
Today, the National Autism Association, where I work, provides information and resources for caregivers. Back then, there were no fact sheets to support our pleas for greater vigilance. And, to this day, there is no guidance from the Department of Education; no protocols, not even a mandate to notify parents of any wandering attempts. At the N.A.A., we often hear from parents who have a child who cannot sleep, forcing caregivers to barricade doors and take shifts staying awake. Others are so desperate that they hide their child’s shoes to slow them down in case they escape.
Under federal criteria, which most states follow, the Amber Alert system can be used only for children known to have been abducted. Wandering doesn’t count. Instead, the refrain most often thrown at parents is simply “watch your child better,” or “find a school that will watch your child better.”
Imagine if that were the advice given to those who care for Alzheimer’s patients. In fact, the Department of Justice provides about $1 million a year for first-responder training on Alzheimer’s-related wandering and tracking technology. There is no equivalent funding for autism-specific wandering and no more than a promise, in 2011, from Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, to give the issue “serious consideration.”
If consideration had become action, perhaps Avonte would be home safe right now. There is still a lack of awareness in schools. Simply to provide better teacher training on wandering would help prevent future disappearances.
So where is the federal autism program on wandering prevention? Yes, budgets are tight, but here is our choice: We can spend the money now on awareness and training, or later, on huge, intensive searches for missing children.
Now 13, my son wears a tracking device, and is learning ways to keep himself safe. In his room are miniature replicas of his favorite exit signs, and a laptop, which he uses to draw them whenever he likes. He hasn’t attempted to reach the highway since getting the laptop. He’s also at middle school now, cared for by an amazing staff. While Connor still has phobias that can make bolting behaviors difficult to prevent, we finally have the resources to help keep him safe.
But not nearly enough is being done to keep children like Avonte from disappearing. Too many parents are still going through the anguish of losing their wandering children.
Lori McIlwain is the executive director of the National Autism Association.