On Christmas Eve, a 15-year-old boy with autism died from injuries sustained after being struck by a vehicle. The next day, the body of 7-year-old boy with autism was found floating in a nearby pool.
Each year, hundreds of children and adults with autism go missing, but holiday-related wandering cases are especially dangerous. According to a study from the National Autism Association (NAA), incidents that occurred from a social or family gathering, such as those during the holidays, ended in death 69 percent of the time. In recent years, cases have occurred on Mother’s Day, July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve.
Similar to wandering behaviors in the Alzheimer’s community, wandering/elopement, or “running” behaviors in children and adults with autism have led to countless tragedies across the country. A pediatrics study in 2012 found that half of children with autism attempt to wander/elope from a safe environment. According to NAA, accidental drowning is responsible for the vast majority of lethal outcomes, especially among younger children with autism. The second leading cause of death is by fatal traffic injury, typically in teenage males with autism.
Times of transition, commotion and stress can increase wandering and elopement behaviors, and this is especially true during the holidays and holiday gatherings. Not only do unfamiliar places, noisy settings or disrupted routines bolster the chance for a child or adult to exit-seek, it can also make it difficult for caregivers to respond. With the commotion of gatherings, caregivers may not be aware the child is missing, which can prolong search efforts.
Preparation ahead of holiday gatherings can decrease risk. It’s important that caregivers make relatives and friends aware of wandering risks ahead of time, and assign one trusted adult to closely supervise the at-risk children at all times for an agreed-upon period of time. Tools like door chimes and stop sign prompts are inexpensive enough to take to a relative’s home during visits, and items that reduce noise can also help. Consider tracking technology or distance monitors, especially if visiting someone else’s home. Having identification on your child is essential, especially if communication challenges are present. Avoiding triggers is also key, so allowing the child to do what makes them feel comfortable and happy may help decrease anxiety. In the event of an emergency, call 911 and search nearby sources of water first, even if it’s murky or icy.
For more tips, download the free toolkit for caregivers.