My heart is breaking today for the family of a young girl with autism who wandered off from her home around dinner time last night. Tragically, her body was found in a nearby lake. (You can read more about this story here: http://www.wavy.com/dpp/news/local_news/hampton/5-year-old-missing-in-hampton)
In addition to the clear tragedy of the loss of this child, it also saddens me greatly how little is known about autism by so many people still. Some of the comments on the story make this clear, and this tells me we are not doing enough. We need to continue to spread the information about what autism is, how it effects kids, and what cannot be assumed to be true for these kids.
In this case it is clear that people do not understand the wandering behavior that is seen in many kids with autism. So many people assuming she was murdered, or that her parents left her alone outside to wander off. While I do not have a child with autism, I have worked with enough families of children who wander to know that their child escaping the house unnoticed is one of many parents greatest fears. Children can slip out of doors, or simple wander out of a yard when a parents eyes aren't on them for a split second. In the case of this girl, she lived in a neighborhood with a lake 2 blocks away. As children with autism do not follow our rules, my first assumption is this girl felt like swimming and went to do so, but perhaps can only swim in shallow water and the lake was too deep. With the lake so close to the house, this horrible tragedy probably unfolded quite quickly for this poor girl.
How sad for the parents that in addition to losing their child, they have people questioning "where were the parents??" My answer to them is mom was probably making dinner! Certainly every parent has to cook for their children and use the bathroom. It is quite simply impossible to have an eye on your child every moment of the day. We do not know this family or this child, other than she had autism and did not speak and the family was new to the area. Either this girl didn't have a history of wandering off (maybe her old neighborhood didn't have a lake she wanted to swim in!) or her parents simply hadn't had a chance to get alarms put on the doors or to get Project Lifesaver in place.
I believe that in addition to educating the general public about the wandering (and bolting) behaviors of these children, we also need to do a better job of educating parents of children with all disabilities who wander that there are options such as Project Lifesaver to help them track their child should he or she wander off. Parents need to know that they can have some piece of mind, and the general public needs to be made aware of what to look for and what to do should they happen to encounter a child with autism where they should not be.
For more information on Project Lifesaver, you can find their website here: http://www.projectlifesaver.org/