(NEW YORK) -- Nearly half of all children with autism will run away and potentially go missing at least once before their 17th birthday, according to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Of those who run away, what clinicians call "eloping," many will be found dead.
One in 50 children is diagnosed annually with autism, a spectrum of neurodevelopment disorders marked by problems with social interaction and communication, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. As the number of children who are diagnosed increases, so too does the number of kids who run off, leaving rescuers to learn quickly how best to handle a unique set of challenges.
The numbers alone present a challenge for law enforcement authorities, who regularly rank searches for missing children among the most difficult work they do. Finding children with autism -- who shirk when their names are called out, who run away at the sound of police sirens, who are afraid of the dogs sent to find them, and who naturally are comforted by burrowing and hiding -- makes a hard job even harder, investigators say.
Autistic children are more likely to run away than unaffected children. When they do runaway, they are more likely to die than unaffected children. And more often than not, 91 percent of the time, those deaths are a result of drowning.
But what is so perplexing to researchers and rescuers are the stories of almost super-human rates of survival for young children with developmental disabilities. Some children manage to stay alive for days often in the wilderness and against staggering odds.
"It's a mystery," said Robert G. Lowery Jr. of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "Time and again, we see cases where autistic children live longer and survive in harsher settings than unaffected children. We don't really know why. It might be that these children with autism have a diminished sense of fear, but it's astonishing."
Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism, but girls are twice more likely than boys to die after an elopement, according to Lori McIlwain, executive director of the National Autism Association, which tracks eloping incidents and deaths.
In 2012, 195 autistic children younger than 10 went missing, according to the autism association, which only tracks those incidents reported by the media.
Between 2009 and 2011, 91 autistic children younger than 14 died in drowning incidents. More than two-thirds of those deaths occurred in small natural bodies of water like creeks, lakes, rivers and ponds.
"Oftentimes, children who go missing are low or nonverbal," McIlwain said. "But they know where a pond is. They see it from the car going to and from school every day, but they can't tell mom or dad that they want go to the pond and play. They think about it and when they have the chance, they bolt."
"We make recommendations to law enforcement about things they should be doing immediately," said Lee Manning, a former Massachusetts state trooper and now a consultant for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which works with law enforcement agencies across the country to train cops on how best to search for children with autism.
"[Police] have to respond very seriously and not waste any time. One of the things we strongly recommend is to get first responders, even neighbors, dispatched to local bodies of water right away," said Manning a member of Team Adam, a nationwide rapid response team of retired cops that helps law enforcement on the most difficult missing children cases.
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