When Jamie Arnold’s two young children clambered out of a window in his Bethesda home one day this month, his first thought was, “Is there any water nearby?”
He and his wife, Tiffani, dashed outside to look for Kadence, 5, and Kaleb, 4, both of whom have autism. It’s a common challenge that parents of autistic children face — children with the disorder have a tendency to wander away from parents and toward water — often leading to tragedy, police and experts say.
Arnold said he and his wife constantly have to watch the two.
“It’s a whole new side to parenting,” said Arnold, an Army nurse who has four other children.
At the Autism Night Out at Montgomery County’s police training academy in Rockville on Thursday, Kaleb and Kadence were safe and sound, happily munching on doughnut holes and sipping apple juice. They were there with hundreds of other parents and children who wandered around meeting police officers, looking at fire engines and rescue boats, meeting Max and Caesar — two search-and-rescue dogs — and hopping around in a moonbounce.
The disorder has created a tight-knit community of families to cope with the challenges autism presents.
“We know almost everybody here,” one father said.
Parents of children with the neurological disorder said that children with autism have different experiences, but that the experience of raising autistic children was “universal,” as was the fear of a tragedy brought on by an “elopement” or a “wandering.”
They are all too frequent: Police discovered the body of 7-year-old Michael Kingsbury in a car in Washington, D.C., 36 hours after he went missing on July 7. He left the house after throwing a light fixture out of his window while he was playing, according to a July 8 story in The Washington Post. The cause and manner of his death — and how he ended up in the car — are still unclear, police say.
In recent years, there has been a spate of fatalities of children with autism.
“It happens so frequently,” said Shawnie Keenan of Autism Speaks, one of the organizations sponsoring Autism Night Out, which was held to raise awareness about the disorder, bring the autistic community together and connect it with law enforcement officials, organizers said.
An article in the October edition of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatricians, reported that in a study of more than 1,200 children with autism, nearly half had wandered or tried to elope at least once after the age of 4.
In Montgomery County, about 100 to 150 calls out of the hundreds of missing persons reports police investigate every year are for missing autistic children, Officer Laurie Reyes said.
“They’re in danger the moment they go missing,” Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger told parents at the event.
Organizers and police passed out information and urged parents to have a plan in place in case their children wander or bolt out of their house.
Reyes said that if a child wanders off, parents should contact police immediately. Their house should have an alarm system that chimes when a door is opened, she said, and parents should let neighbors know about the children and their condition. Parents also should make sure their children know how to swim and have some kind of identification on them, she said.
Police passed out neon green shirts for children to wear to bed at night, when many kids wander off, Reyes said. “I have autism! Call 911 if I am alone,” is printed on them. Reyes said the inspiration for the gathering came in part from her work with Project Lifesaver, a Montgomery County police program. Families with relatives prone to wandering can receive bracelets that transmit a radio signal. Police can track the signal from about a mile away, dramatically shortening rescue searches.
One parent said he keeps a phone with “family locator” plan in his son’s backpack or pants in case he wanders off.
“It’s great to be around a scene where they understand the situation, the cause, and [people are] not looking at your children as if it’s awkward,” said Chris Superville of Aspen Hill, who was at the event with his wife, Shante Harris-Superville, and their 7-year-old son, Dylan.
Dylan doesn’t tend to wander, Harris-Superville said. But there are other challenges. Although he’s more “typical,” meaning more like a person without autism, he doesn’t communicate verbally very much, she said.
“It’s hard ... when they can’t explain their needs to you,” she said.