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Missing Children With Autism

Nearly half of children with autism will wander, or elope, from safe environments. And more than one-third of children who wander are considered nonverbal. Finding and safely recovering a missing child with autism presents unique and difficult challenges for families, law enforcement, first responders and search teams. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has special search protocols and checklists to help first responders.

Children with autism go missing under a variety of circumstances. They may seek out small or enclosed spaces. They may wander toward places of special interest to them. Or they may try to escape overwhelming stimuli such as sights, sounds, surroundings or activities of others.

Attraction to water

Children with autism often have an extremely high attraction to water. Because of this we strongly recommend first responders and search teams immediately check all nearby bodies of water in an effort to head-off the child. These bodies of water include but are not limited to streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, creeks, storm-water retention/detention basins and swimming pools.

Other dangerous attractions

Children with autism may exhibit other interests that pose similar dangers such as:

  • Roadways/highways.
  • Trains.
  • Heavy equipment.
  • Fire trucks.
  • Roadway signs.
  • Bright lights.
  • Traffic signals.

Immediate response

When a child with autism goes missing, it is important to quickly identify any unique interests the child has and create a list of their favorite places. First responders should talk to anyone who knows the child well to ask for information about any interests, stimulations or obsessions the child may have. This information could provide key clues leading to a safe recovery.

As with all critically missing children, time is a vitally important factor in a safe recovery. Law enforcement agencies are encouraged to contact us at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) for additional assistance and resources, including search-and-rescue experts who immediately deploy to provide recommendations and technical assistance in cases of critically missing children.

Resources for law enforcement

Preparing those who are close

We recommend families of children with autism talk to those closest to them about their child. This could be neighbors, teachers, friends, extended family or anyone who might spend time with or near the child. These are the people who will notice your child is missing when you are not around. If your child does go missing, they should immediately call local law enforcement. But they should also begin searching.

By talking to those who are close to your child now, you will prepare them in case your child does someday go missing. Tell these people about any particular interests your child has, such as water, roads, trains, trucks or lights. These are the things your child may wander to. Tell them about anything that frightens your child like animals or loud noises. These are the things your child may wander away from.

For example, if your child is attracted to water and there is a creek behind your child’s school, his or her teachers should know to look there first. Many times it is the person last with the child who can help the most.

What parents and guardians can do

  1. Be aware of bodies of water near places where the child spends time.
  2. Talk to those who are closest to your child. Neighbors, teachers, friends, extended family and anyone who might be near your child when he or she wanders away are often the first people who can help find your child quickly. Inform these people of anything your child is attracted to or scared of.

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