Autism Community Mourns Three Deaths from Drowning in One Week

Drowning accident lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm regret to report that three American autistic children drowned during the last week of May 2013, highlighting the need for improved research and protection against autistic elopement.

Elopement refers to the tendency for people with impaired cognitive abilities (such as seniors with dementia or children with autism) to wander away from homes or supervisors. A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics illuminated this, stating that, by the time they are 17, nearly half of autistic children will run away from home.

Child elopement presents a major challenge to law enforcement authorities throughout the country, which consider missing children searches among the most difficult tasks. If the missing child has autism, the difficulties are compounded, often with devastating results.

Speaking generally, children with autism often do not respond directly when their names are called, and are wary of loud noises, such as sirens or barking dogs. These children are also often comforted by the sensation of hiding, or burrow underneath things to feel safe.

About one in every 50 children are diagnosed with autism each year – a condition defined as a neurodevelopment disorder, affecting communication and social interaction. When autistic children elope, it is not just aimless wandering; it is often to get away from or to something in particular. If can occur when the child is stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, and although the action in itself may be innocent, the consequences are life-changing.

In 2012, nearly 200 autistic children went missing; between 2009 and 2011, more than 90% of autistic children under the age of 14 who went missing died in drowning incidents. More than two-thirds of those deaths occurred in small, natural bodies of water, such as ponds or creeks.

All three of the children who drowned the week of Mother’s Day this year died in similar bodies of water. The first was a nine-year-old girl, whose body was found three days after she was discovered missing, in a creek near her family’s California vacation home. The second was an 8-year-old boy from Florida, whose body was found in the Gulf of Mexico, a half a mile from where he was last seen. The third was a 2-year-old boy who wandered away from his family’s cabin, and was found almost immediately, drowned, about 100 yards away in a creek.

Oftentimes, the autistic children who elope are low-or non-verbal, who may see bodies of water and not be able to communicate their want to go there and play. For some, if an opportunity arises for them to go play in the pond or river, they simply take it.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is working with law enforcement agencies throughout the country to train officers on best methods to search for kids with autism. Such measures include getting first responders, including neighbors and family, to local bodies of water right away. What authorities and experts have to work with, however, is simply anecdotal evidence, which is not enough to answer all the questions surrounding this phenomenon.

One mother who has two autistic children said that she believes those who wander have an overwhelming need to be somewhere else. What is needed to help curtail the elopements and consequent drowning are practices to help autistic children cope with stresses, and more, scientific information into to the minds of these children. Families are also encouraged to register children with local law enforcements and alert them to the possibility of elopement.

Drowning attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm encourage families to establish a wandering emergency plan incase a child ever goes missing. If you or a loved one was seriously injured in a body of water, you may be entitled to significant compensation for any medical bills, lost wages, and emotional distress, and should contact a skilled drowning lawyer as soon as possible.