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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Too Many Autistic Children Wander Off

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 8, 2012 -- Like many parents with an autistic child, Lori McIlwain worries that her 12-year-old son, Connor, will wander away from school, home, or other safe places.

It has happened more than once.

When he was 7, Connor left his school’s playground unnoticed and walked toward a busy four-lane highway because of his fascination with highway signs.

“A man picked him up before he got there, but Connor couldn’t tell him who he was so they just drove around,” McIlwain says.

The man ended up taking him to another school where the police were called. But since Connor’s school had not alerted the police when they discovered he was missing, they did not know where he belonged either.

By the time McIlwain finally got to her son, he was hysterical.

Traffic Injury, Drowning Major Concern

Although the experience was terrifying for Connor and his parents, McIlwain knows they were lucky.

Bolting or wandering off is thought to be a leading cause of death among autistic children, and a new study illustrates just how common the problem is.

In the survey of parents of 1,218 children who have autism spectrum disorders, half reported that their child had wandered off or attempted to wander off at least once after the age of 4.

Many of these reported incidents of missing children involved close calls that could have ended in death, mostly from drowning (24%) or traffic injury (65%).

Children most often wandered off from home (74%), stores (40%), and schools (29%).

The study was published online today, and it will appear in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics.

“This is a huge issue for these families,” says researcher Paul Law, MD, who directs the Interactive Autism Network at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. “Many parents say this is one of the most significant problems they face, and they go to enormous lengths and expense to try and keep their children safe.”

3 Deaths in 3 Weeks

It is not clear how many autistic children die each year after wandering away from safe places, but Lori McIlwain believes the number is increasing.

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