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Autistic children more likely to wander off or go ‘missing,’ study finds

Almost half of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder will wander off or "bolt," often going missing long enough to cause their parents significant distress, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

"These are the first published findings in the U.S. that provide an estimate of the number of children with ASD who not only wander or elope, but go missing long enough to cause real concern," Dr. Paul Law, the study's senior author, said in a release. Researchers from the Interactive Autism Network, a U.S.-based research initiative, recruited families of 1,218 children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and 1,076 of their siblings who do not have ASD. An online questionnaire discovered that 49 per cent of children with ASD attempted to elope, or run away, at least once after age 4. More than half of parents – 56 per cent – said elopement was one of the most stressful behaviours they had to deal with.

"You live in constant prevention mode," Lori McIlwain, whose 12-year-old son, Connor, is autistic, told ABC News. "You're always on high alert." A lot of young kids may at times wander off or run away, but the study found that from ages 4 to 7, nearly half of children with ASD eloped, which is quadruple the rate of their brothers or sisters without ASD. Between ages 8 and 11, only 1 per cent of their siblings ever eloped, compared to 27 per cent of children with ASD.

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The dangers these children face are very real: Close calls with drowning and traffic injury were both reported in high numbers (24 per cent and 65 per cent, respectively).

The study also found that half of parents reported never receiving guidance on how to address or prevent children running away or wandering off.

"We hope that the results of this study will inform families, physicians, educators and first responders of the real consequences of elopement," Law said. "Parents often fear being viewed as neglectful when their children leave from safe places. This study demonstrates that we urgently need interventions to address elopement and provide support to affected families."

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