How to help when an autistic child is missing

WASHINGTON — It’s always scary when a child goes missing, but when children with autism wander off, the people looking for them face special challenges.

Now, a new public service campaign asks you to help, and gives advice on how to do it.

One in 68 children has some form of autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more and more of those children are being reported missing, says John Ryan, CEO of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“In the last two years alone, the National Center has received over 300 reports of autistic children who have gone missing,” Ryan said at the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday.

And 43 of those children, he said, died before they could be rescued.

According to the public service announcement from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, half of children with autism wander off and are reported missing at some point in their young lives.

Ryan said children with autism are often drawn to settings or objects that can put them in danger — “bodies of water, a highway sign, a Metro train” — and their condition makes them more difficult to find, as well: “Many [autistic children] are non verbal, and unable to respond to searchers.”

And children with autism, Ryan says, may find the very methods used to help find them frightening.

“Some want to escape loud noises, bright lights or other activities that may upset them, and yelling the child’s name or using search dogs or ATVs and helicopters may actually drive them further away.”

Ryan made reference to the case of Michael Kingsbury, a D.C. 7-year-old who wandered away from his home and hid in a parked car, where he was later found dead, despite the search that had gone on all around him. Ryan pointed out it’s not unusual for children with autism to seek out quiet, isolated places when scared or upset.

Speaking at the National Missing Children’s Day ceremony, Ryan unveiled the new public service announcement, narrated by actress Holly Robinson Peete, who has an autistic son. In the PSA, Peete asks, “If this were your child, would you want someone to get involved and help? Parents with children with autism do.”

The PSA urges adults to “remember the 3 S’s: stop to help; seek assistance from police; stay until they arrive.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

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