|Graphic by fourseastars. Used with permission.|
In the past week three children with autism have gone missing, later to be found dead in a body of water. Mikaela Lynch was 9 years old and was missing for 5 days before her body was found in the creek behind her house. Owen Black was 8 and slipped out of the vacation house he was staying in with his parents while they slept. Drew Howell was 2. They were all autistic and nonverbal.
Three children now dead. These are unimaginable tragedies; I can't even comprehend it, it's so huge. I can't put myself into the heads of the families who are now so devastated by these losses, it's too big for me to understand. Even saying that I'm sorry for their losses just seems banal. I can't imagine their pain. I can't.
When things like this happen, it's human nature to want to have a reason, an explanation. It's natural to ask questions like "how could this happen?" and I'll try to explain what I can: Professionals call it "elopement behavior," or "wandering," and studies have shown "49% of children (with autism) have wandered away from safe environments, such as homes, schools, public places, day camps, and other non-home settings." This means that they will just take off running at the drop of a hat. It means they will be there one second and gone the next. It means their parents have to keep a hand on them at all times; at all times: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, because they will be gone in an instant. So many families I know have special deadbolts or alarms on their doors, just so they can sleep at night without worrying that their child will leave the house while they sleep.
In addition, autistic children who "wander" have no understanding of their personal safety, and they are very commonly attracted to water. Sadly, The National Autism Association reports that "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."
I know how much one might want to say "their parents should have been watching them," because, like I said, it's natural to want to find an explanation, but it's just not that easy. You can't keep your eyes open and on your child 24/7, you just can't. What happens if you're in a shopping center and you drop your wallet? You have to bend down and pick it up and then you look up and she's gone. Yes, it happens that fast. And I can promise you that this was the biggest fear of the parents of these children. I would bet all the money in the world that they would lie awake at night in a panic, worrying about their child running from them and having something horrible happen. This is, literally, these families' worst nightmares.
These events are unspeakable tragedies but they are not the fault of the parents. These children's parents are not to blame for this. Nobody is to blame for this, it's just a horrible, unimaginable thing that has happened. That said, there are still some people out there who will use these tragedies to advance their own careers and personal agendas, in particular one pink haired hack who "writes" for the Examiner (I put the word "writes" in quotes because having the ability to bang your fist into a keyboard doesn't automatically make you a writer.) These people will try to take advantage of the pain these parents are feeling and make some money by having you click on the link to their inflammatory "articles." These people not just willfully violate journalistic ethics and should be fired from whatever writing jobs they have but are also the scum of the earth.
If you actually want to help, don't point fingers and don't place blame. Educate yourself about autism and wandering. Join in efforts to help support families who lie awake at night worrying. But most importantly, don't judge. Don't say "those parents should have done a better job," because until it's YOU lying in your bed at night in a panic, you have no idea what it's really like. And the truth is that Child 1 is not a runner and this isn't part of my experience with autism. I lie awake nights worrying about different things and therefore I, too, have no idea what it's really like. But that doesn't stop me from being educated on the issue, and education is what prevents judgment. If you don't understand this pain, that's okay, you don't have to. Just don't judge what you don't know.