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Almost half of autistic kids wander from safety

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, 5:44 p.m.

The fear that overtakes a parent when a child wanders away is easily compounded when that child has an autism-spectrum disorder.

A study shows that such behavior occurs more often than in other children, and the hazards can be significant.

In a sample of 1,200 children with autism, 49 percent had wandered, bolted or “eloped” at least once after age 4; 26 percent went missing long enough to cause concern.

Only 13 percent of 1,076 siblings without autism had wandered off at or after age 4, when such behavior typically becomes less common, finds the study in today's Pediatrics. Among children with autism who went missing, 65 percent had close calls with traffic; 24 percent were in danger of drowning.

“Elopement is one of the very few problems in autism that is life-threatening,” said study author Paul Law, a pediatrician and director of the Interactive Autism Network Project (ianproject.com), a national autism database headquartered at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. “It is probably one of the leading, if not the leading, causes of death in children with autism.”

Among other study findings:

• Elopement attempts peaked at age 5 for kids with autism.

• From 4 to 7, 46 percent of kids with autism bolted, vs. 11 percent of siblings. From 8 to 11, 27 percent did; from 12-17, 12 percent did.

• Children who wandered had more severe autism symptoms and had lower intellectual and communications scores than those who did not.

• The places children bolted from most were their home or another (74 percent), stores (40 percent) and schools (29 percent).

The risks associated with her daughter's elopement behavior led Alison Singer of Scarsdale, N.Y., to install alarms on every door in her house.

From ages 5 to 10, Jodie, now 15, would try to leave in the middle of the night in search of things, from the Chinese restaurant that served her favorite egg rolls to a book she read at a neighbor's two years before.

“It just got into her head that she wanted it, and she'd head out to get it,” said Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, one of several groups that funded the study.

The federal government recently created a medical diagnostic code for wandering as a condition of autism, an important first step in efforts to get preventative services, Singer said.

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