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A Look into Autism Elopement in Michigan


August, 2016


Have you ever searched for something you lost. The overwhelming frustration, sadness and sense of loss when you misplace you wallet or purse, wedding ring or stash of cash? That sense of loss and grief when you have an overwhelming feeling that maybe it was stolen, or maybe you just misplaced it?

The summer after our son was diagnosed with Autism at age three, we took a camping trip to Muskegon, we were determined not to let a silly little thing like Autism get in the way of our family adventures. We stayed at a campground with the Muskegon river running through it. At dinner time, we were seated at the table and realized that our son was missing. I looked over to the river’s edge and saw him standing there looking down into the water. I yelled his name and “Danger!”

I then watched as my son jumped into the river.

God, Angels, Karma, we are both lucky to be alive. The river current was very fast moving, the water was very deep and we were swept down the river, we both almost drown that day. I still have dreams of my son drowning, and I can’t save him.

I can only imagine the grief and trauma experienced by nine year old Kevin Curtis Wills family in 2008 after he jumped into the Raccoon River in Iowa and drowned. This very well could have been my son.

In 2013 Avonte Oquendo eloped from his school building and drown in the East River in New York. His disappearance was highly publicized and brought about a lot of awareness. Every year on April 1st a group of Facebook friends who have kids with autism participate in a Virtual Candlelight Vigil for Autistic Children Who Lost Their Lives After Wandering. In the event we have listed all known children with autism who have wandered and never returned to their families.

Did you know:

  • Roughly half, or 48%, of children with an ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings
  • In 2009, 2010, and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% total U.S. deaths reported in children with an ASD ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering/elopement.
  • More than one third of ASD children who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
  • Two in three parents of elopers reported their missing children had a “close call” with a traffic injury
  • 32% of parents reported a “close call” with a possible drowning
  • Wandering was ranked among the most stressful ASD behaviors by 58% of parents of elopers
  • 62% of families of children who elope were prevented from attending/enjoying activities outside the home due to fear of wandering
  • 40% of parents had suffered sleep disruption due to fear of elopement
  • Children with ASD are eight times more likely to elope between the ages of 7 and 10 than their typically-developing siblings
  • Half of families with elopers report they had never received advice or guidance about elopement from a professional
  • Only 19% had received such support from a psychologist or mental health professional
  • Only 14% had received guidance from their pediatrician or another physician
    (National Autism Association)
 Marlowe Franklin

Marlowe Franklin

MSW, AAoM Parent and Advocate

What do we do about this growing problem? 

This past March, Kevin and Avonte’s Law was introduced by Senator’s Grassley and Schumer that will reauthorize the expired Missing Alzheimer’s Disease Patient Alert Program and include new provisions to support people with autism. In July, the bill passed the Senate and has been introduced in the U.S House of Representatives.

These bills are so important to the autism community, because they can facilitate training for people such as school personnel, first responders and others who may come into contact with a person with autism who is missing or could prevent a person from coming up missing.

In Michigan, The Autism Alliance is already addressing wandering and safety. We are fortunate to have an organization that understands the importance of these issues and with the passage of this legislation, we could end senseless tragedies for children with autism. Take a moment to visit the website to learn more about “The Autism Alliance of Michigan Sean Taglione Memorial Global Positioning Program” GPS that partners with local autism advocacy and support groups to distribute GPS devices in Michigan. The Sean Taglione Memorial GPS Program is part of the Michigan Autism Safety Training (MAST), an initiative of AAoM. Funding for this program is made possible by generous donations to the Sean Taglione Memorial GPS program through the Autism Alliance of Michigan on the same page.  The Autism Alliance has recently partnered with AngelSense, allowing parents to receive minute to minute text notifications to their cell phones regarding their at-risk child’s location.

A tracking device would not have prevented my son from jumping in the Muskegon river, but what if he wouldn’t have been located right away? A tracking device would have been the perfect solution to helping locate him. As a mom, I call for more training and no more lost children.

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