Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wonder Why I Wander?

I had a close call yesterday. Ryan has an urge to wander, and it keeps me on edge all the time. Like many homes in Hawaii, ours has a large wall built around the entire property. There are two gates—one for pedestrian traffic that we keep locked with a deadbolt, and another for our cars to enter, which has a small motor to open and close it. 

Last night, I was chopping vegetables for dinner and Ryan was in the adjoining room watching a Nick Jr. program. I had my eyes off him for less than a minute, and when I looked in on him, he was gone. He is very quiet, and he doesn’t vocally respond to his name, so calling out for him does no good.

I looked outside and saw he had gotten into my car, used the remote control to open the vehicle gate. Blind panic ensued. I looked up and down the street, and saw a man with his dog looking at something—which I soon realized was my son on top of what can best be described as a drainage canal, used to direct the water coming off the hills during rainy season so it will flow out to the ocean. This canal is made of large stones mortared together, and is about 8 feet deep. Ryan was walking along the narrow stone edge, and jumping up and down. 

I ran over to him quickly, but didn’t want to call out and possibly startle him and cause him to fall. I grabbed him and pulled him over to me…meanwhile, Man-with-Dog is looking at me like I’m the worst mother he can imagine. I felt like it, too. I know Ryan has this desire or need to wander away. This is the second time it has happened. The last time my husband found him a block away with a jogger who was watching out for him. 

The medical community calls this “elopement”, and last year autism wandering was made an official diagnosis with its own medical code. Furthermore, a 2011 study by Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore scientifically validated that this is a critical safety issue for the autism community. To quote from their study: 

The tendency of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to wander or "bolt" puts them at risk of trauma, injury or even death:
  • More than one third of children who elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number verbally or by writing/typing
  • Two in three parents report their missing children had a "close call" with a traffic injury
  • 32% of parents report a "close call" with a possible drowning
Wandering was ranked as one of the most stressful ASD behaviors, and many parents cannot enjoy activities outside their home because they fear their child will wander off. In this study, 40% of parents reported sleep disruption due to fear of elopement. I know I share this fear—Ryan sleeps in between my husband and me, and I don’t see this ending any time in the near future.

Lest you think I am exaggerating:

James Delorey – December, 2009. A seven-year-old boy with autism from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, went missing after following his dog into a wooded area. He was later found huddled in the fetal position in thick brush and snow less than a mile from his home. He was rushed to the hospital, but eventually passed away from severe hypothermia and exposure.

Mason Medlam – July, 2010. Five-year-old with autism, escaped through a partially open window, died of his injuries after being pulled from a small pond in a town outside of Witchita, Kansas. Medlam wandered from his home out of a partially opened window and had been missing for more than a half-hour before being discovered.

Zachary Clark – August, 2010. A five-year-old boy with autism from Tucson, Arizona who was pulled from a golf course pond located less than a half-mile from his home. Despite efforts at CPR, Clark was pronounced dead shortly after being airlifted to a nearby hospital.

Nathan Kinderdine - August, 2010. A seven-year-old with autism from Ohio, wandered away from his class during a summer enrichment program at school. Kinderline was found by a custodian at the bottom of the school’s indoor swimming pool and although school nurses tried to revive him, he was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival to the hospital. 

Skyler Wayne – October, 2010. An eight-year-old boy with autism who was found in an Idaho river three houses away from his home. Wayne was in the care of a babysitter at the time of the incident and was found in less than two feet of water.  

Savannah Martin – February, 2011. A seven-year-old girl from Oklahoma who was found face-down in a chilly pond about 50 yards from her home. Her two-year-old brother was also found with her in the water, but was face-up and buoyed by the Styrofoam in a bicycle helmet he had been wearing. Despite the efforts by the girl’s mother to revive her, Savannah was later pronounced dead. 

Jackson Kastner – March, 2011. Four-year-old who drowned in a Michigan river after wandering from his home. The river was located 300 yards from Kastner’s home and swept him away — he was later found a mile-and-a-half downstream. The boy was airlifted to a hospital but attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.   

Adam Benhamma – April, 2011. A three-year-old boy who is both non-verbal and deaf has been missing since Sunday. Benhamma disappeared during a game of hide-and-seek while his father briefly went inside the house they were visiting. Police believe the boy fell into a nearby icy river. As of today’s date, he has not been found and is presumed to be deceased. 

John Burton, Jr. – June, 2011. A seven-year old boy from Indiana, who drowned in a nearby creek. He had just moved into a new neighborhood and was unfamiliar with the environment. His body was discovered one day after he went missing. 

The next time you see an unaccompanied child—especially one who might be in danger from traffic, water hazards, extreme weather—STOP. Find out if the child knows were s/he is and if there are parents nearby. It could be a matter of life and death.


  1. Naturally I'd try to help any child who looks lost. Since your little guy doesn't talk, and apparently fears strangers, what could I do, in his case, to be sure he didn't just run away from me (and maybe get into more trouble?) Should I call 911?

  2. Aloha! I think the best thing to do is to stay nearby and watch to make sure the child isn't doing anything that could harm him or her. And I would approach the child--ask if s/he's OK--but yes, you probably won't get an answer...

    A terrified parent should show up shortly, but I would call the police if someone didn't come soon to claim the child.

    Thanks for asking!!