NOTICE: Your browser may not be fully supported by this website. Please go to Browser Support for more information.

Searching on a Spectrum

Motorists traveling on U.S. Route 60 in Mesa, Ariz., were horrified one evening in May 2012 when they saw a child walk into the path of oncoming traffic.

Several pulled over and tried coaxing the child to the shoulder as cars swerved around him. They didn't know 9-year-old Au-Juna Banks-Taylor had autism, but did notice he covered his ears when they shouted at him.

The driver of a Chevy S-10 pickup truck did not see the boy until his vehicle struck and killed him.

On the rise

Lori McIlwain, executive director of the National Autism Association, has watched the number of cases where a child with autism or a related disorder goes missing grow at an alarming rate. As many as six of these children go missing each week. Between January 2012 and August 2012, 20 cases resulted in the death of the autistic child, nearly all from drowning, she said.

"There are more cases because there are more kids with autism," said McIlwain.

The number of children with autism and related disorders in the U.S. has skyrocketed. One in every 88 children is diagnosed, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children we have seen a spike in the cases of children diagnosed with autism or related disorders who wander from safe environments. Sadly, many of these cases have ended in the death of the child as a result of traffic crashes, exposure to the elements and, most often, accidental drowning.

Autism and wandering

Several weeks after Banks-Taylor was killed, the parents of 4-year-old Aiden Bower tucked their son into bed at their home in Holiday, Fla. When they checked on him an hour later, the window screen in his bedroom had been pushed open.

Aiden, who had autism, was gone. His body was later found at the bottom of a neighbor's swimming pool.

The next month, 5-year-old Jeremiah Conn of Madison, Wis., was reported missing from a relative's home in Stoughton, Wis. His shoes were spotted at the edge of a retention pond.

Jeremiah, who had autism, also drowned.

While it is well known that adults diagnosed with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia frequently wander, it is less recognized that children diagnosed with autism or related disorders often exhibit similar behaviors.

According to the Interactive Autism Network, via the Kennedy Krieger Institute, nearly half of children with autism will repeatedly try to wander, or elope, from a safe environment. In many cases these children bolt to something they have fixated on, such as a body of water, a highway sign or a train — increasingly with deadly consequences.

One mother said she turned her home into a fortress to keep her son safe. She put keycode locks on all the doors, bolted the windows so they will only open so far and erected a backyard fence facing inward so her son couldn't climb out. Despite her best efforts, her son picked the lock with a knife to get out.

In desperation, some parents sleep on the floor next to their children's beds or nail their windows shut despite the fire hazard, said McIlwain.

"My son has wandered at airports, on ferries, in hotels," another mother wrote to McIlwain. "It's terrifying. He waits until your attention is elsewhere for a moment, then he's gone."

Search challenges

Searching for children with autism or related disorders is especially challenging because they often exhibit behaviors not seen in unaffected children.

The National Autism Association produced a video for first responders about the challenges associated with autism and wandering.

Many children with autism may be nonverbal and unable to respond to searchers. Some are sensitive to sound, and yelling out the child's name or using search dogs, all-terrain vehicles or helicopters may drive them further away.

These children may exhibit a diminished sense of fear, causing them to engage in high-risk behavior. They often seek out small enclosed spaces, which may be overlooked during initial searches.

Although many of these children fall into harm's way quickly, they can also be very resilient. In some cases, children have been found safely many days after being reported missing and many miles away.

In one case a 15-year-old boy with autism ran out of a hospital in Chicago during a visit there with his father in June 2012. He was spotted two days and 25 miles later by a woman who recognized him from media coverage.

Adapting our response

Eight-year-old Robbie Wood Jr. wandered away from his family in October 2011 while visiting a densely forested park in Hanover County, Va.

More than 6,000 volunteers searched the area. Robbie was found alive in a drainage ditch six days later. He was lethargic and suffering from the effects of being outside for that amount of time, but was in remarkably good health.

After Robbie was safely recovered, members of NCMEC's Missing Children Division met with representatives of autism organizations, health professionals and search-and-rescue experts to see what more could be done to find these children safely when they are reported missing.

As a result NCMEC produced "Missing Children With Special Needs," a collection of protocols and checklists to help call takers and first responders navigate the unique challenges of searching for a missing child with autism or related disorders.

Call takers are encouraged to obtain very specific information from the caller such as whether the child is attracted to water or roadway signs. They are urged to immediately contact NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800- 843-5678) to ensure our resources, including search-and-rescue experts, are deployed immediately.

When these cases arise NCMEC often deploys Team Adam, a rapid-response corps of highly trained, retired law enforcement officers. Team Adam consultants assist law enforcement on the scene with search-and-rescue efforts. The 80 consultants have received training on these new protocols and take a presentation with them when responding to a case of a missing child with autism or related disorders to help explain the unique challenges to law enforcement.

Actions of the first responders are vital to the safe recovery of the child.

"You have to get the right resources in there fast," said Lee Manning, a former commander with the Massachusetts State Police and a nine-year Team Adam consultant who was deployed on Robbie's case.

Different child, different plan

Autism is a spectrum disorder and no two children are alike.

"First responders need to tailor their search around the unique characteristics of each child," says Bob Lowery, executive director of NCMEC's Missing Children Division. "They should also listen intently to the missing child's parents or guardians to learn about the child's specific behaviors and where he or she might go."

After an 8-year-old in Twin Peaks, Calif. had been missing more than 24 hours in September 2011, sheriff's deputies used loud speakers to blast the music of Ozzy Osbourne in the search area. They played the boy's favorite songs, including Osbourne's "No More Tears." It worked: out he popped from behind a bush.

In other cases searchers have grilled hot dogs and hamburgers to draw a hungry child out of hiding. They have set out bedding and a child's favorite stuffed animal when the search continues into night.

An Austrialian film crew helped rescue a 7 year with autism after hearing he may be attracted to water.

Because many of the fatalities associated with these cases are due to drowning, first responders should immediately search any nearby bodies of water and attempt to contain the child in a specific area, said Lowery.

"With increased awareness about autism and quick response to these cases, we can bring more of these children home safely," said Nancy McBride, NCMEC's national safety director.

For more information about autism and wandering, including prevention and safety information for families, visit the AWAARE Collaboration at www.awaare.org.

Copyright © 2014 National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. All rights reserved.

This Web site is funded, in part, through a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor any of its components operate, control, are responsible for, or necessarily endorse, this Web site (including, without limitation, its content, technical infrastructure, and policies, and any services or tools provided).