Children with autism face a serious risk of drowning or hurting themselves in a traffic accident after wandering from their families, new research suggests.
"We hope that the results of this study will inform families, physicians, educators and first responders of the real consequences of elopement," study author Dr. Paul Law, director of the Interactive Autism Network at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said in a written statement. "Parents often fear being viewed as neglectful when their children leave from safe places. This study demonstrates that we urgently need interventions to address elopement and provide support to affected families."
Researchers surveyed 1,218 families that had a child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and compared results to those of 1,076 of their siblings without such a disorder. The children were between the ages of 4 and 17, and researchers found 598 of those with autism - 49 percent - had wandered off at least once after age 4. Of those a majority - 316 - vanished long enough to cause serious concern.
"These are the first published findings in the U.S. 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," Law said.
On average, children with autism who went missing were gone for about 42 minutes. Further analysis of the parents' surveys showed that for young children ages 4 to 7, 46 percent of those with autism wandered away - rates four times higher than their siblings without autism. For children ages 8 to 11, 27 percent of those with autism eloped, compared with 1 percent of their siblings without an autism spectrum disorder. Wandering episodes peaked in surveyed children around age 5.5.
"It's important to see that the high frequency of wandering in affected children contrasts to relatively little wandering in their unaffected siblings," Dr. Amy Daniels, assistant director of public health research at nonprofit advocacy organization Autism Speaks, said in a statement. "This clearly communicates that wandering has little to do with parenting style and more to do with the nature of a child's autism."
Nearly 65 percent of children who had wandered off had a close call with a traffic injury; 24 percent could have drowned.
The stress from these unexpected incidences also affects the rest of the family.
Sixty-two percent of parents who said their child wandered said their concerns prevented their family from attending certain activities outside their home. More than half of surveyed parents said their child wandering was one of the most stressful behaviors they had to cope with as a parent of a child with autism. Half also said they've received no guidance from doctors or elsewhere to prevent or address this potentially dangerous behavior.
"For children who are prone to wander, this is a pervasive problem that affects all aspects of families' lives," Law told The New York Times. "Many parents just don't go out in public with their child because they don't feel safe with them, or they don't get any sleep at night because the child once escaped through the upstairs window."
The research is published in the Oct. 8 issue of Pediatrics.