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National News

August 12, 2013

Deaths of wandering autistic kids prompt action

The 3-year-old girl wandered away from her grandmother’s home in Wareham, Mass., in mid-April. A frantic search began almost immediately, and within an hour little Alyvia Navarro was found unresponsive in a nearby pond. She was pronounced dead the next day.

A month later, across the continent, a larger search unfolded over three days as hundreds of emergency service personnel and volunteers fanned out around Clearlake, Calif., looking for 9-year-old Mikaela Lynch after she vanished from her backyard. The outcome grimly echoed the Wareham search: A dive team found Mikaela’s body in a muddy creek.

The two girls were the first of at least 14 children with autism known to have died this year after slipping away from their caregivers. All but one of them drowned, evidence of a fascination that many autistic children have with water. The body of the latest victim, 11-year-old Anthony Kuznia, was found Thursday in the Red River after a 24-hour search near his home in East Grand Forks, Minn.

The tragic phenomenon goes by various names — wandering, elopement, bolting — and about half of autistic children are prone to it, according to research published last year in the journal Pediatrics.

That would be a huge number. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last year that 1 in 88 children are affected by autism, and a federal survey this year pegged the prevalence rate at one of every 50 schoolchildren — more than 1 million children in all.

Wandering has led to the deaths of more than 60 children in the past four years, and the fear of it can make daily life a harrowing, never-let-your-guard-down challenge for parents.

“We take steps at home — locks on every door, gates, alarms,” said writer Jo Ashline of Orange, Calif., whose 11-year-old son has autism. “But there’s always, in the forefront of our minds, the thought that one tiny mistake could prove fatal.”

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