Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
According to a new study conducted by Dr. Paul A. Law, director of the Interactive Autism Network, nearly half of children diagnosed with an Autism spectrum disorder have run away at least once, either for short periods of time or longer, causing concern amongst their parents and researchers alike.
“I knew this was a problem, but I didn´t know just how significant a problem it was until I really began to look into it,” commented Dr. Law.
Throughout this study, Dr. Law and team found these children running away from home or school, with many running away more than once a day. The most troubling aspect of this research is what can happen to these children when they do wander off.
“This is probably one of the leading causes of death and morbidity for kids with autism,” said Dr. Law in an interview with the New York Times.
Referred to as wandering or elopement, this behavior has been shown to lead to tragic accidents among these children as they wander into traffic and, sometimes, into rivers or oceans.
This new study investigated over 1,200 families with Autistic children and found that 49% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) attempted to “bolt” at least once after the age of 4. A majority of these wandering children, 53%, were missing long enough to cause concern.
“These are the first published findings in the US that provide an estimate of the number of children with ASD who not only wander or elope, but go missing long enough to cause real concern,” said Dr. Law.
Children who had disappeared long enough to be a cause of concern were labeled as “missing” in the report, while those who had run away for a shorter period of time were not coded in the same way.
After analyzing the data from these 1,200 families, Dr. Law´s team furthermore discovered that a shocking 74% of these children with ASD were wandering away from “safe” places, such as their own homes or homes of close family friends. When these children were out and about with their families on shopping trips, 40% of them had run away from these stores, leaving them in potentially unfamiliar territory. 29% of these children were reported as running away from their schools, as well.
The study also found that these children are more likely to run away at ages 4 and 5. When this behavior is at its peak, 29% of the interviewed parents said their children would try to elope several times a day. Another 35% of parents said their children would attempt to run away at least once a week.
“It´s rooted in the very nature of autism itself,” said Dr. Law in a Reuters report.
“Kids don´t have the social skills to check in with their parents, and to have that communication and social bond that most children have when they´re approaching a road or at a park.”
One-third of all elopement cases studied by Dr. Law and team required police intervention in order to recover these children. In many of the situations, these children were in danger of being hit by cars, causing traffic accidents or even drowning.
“There´s an enormous burden that all families are undergoing to keep their families safe,” concludes Dr. Law.
“The amount of diligence, and not going out in public, and staying up late at night“¦ just the general anxiety that families live under because of concerns with this is just torturous.”
While Dr. Law admits that further research needs to be conducted to determine any patterns in how and why these children run away, he also hopes this study will be enough to inform doctors, parents and even first-responders about the dangers of elopement.
“Parents often fear being viewed as neglectful when their children leave from safe places,” says Dr. Law.
“This study demonstrates that we urgently need interventions to address elopement and provide support to affected families.”
Dr. Law’s research is scheduled to be published in the journal Pediatrics.