Half of children with autism are prone to wandering, sometimes for hours -- a dangerous behavior pattern that can start before kindergarten, a national survey has quantified for the first time.
The extent of the wandering phenomenon was revealed in a survey of 856 parents whose children have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
Half of the respondents reported their children not only have wandered from home but were gone long enough to raise alarm.
Conducted by the Interactive Autism Network, an online autism research project overseen by the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, the survey is the first to attempt to quantify the problem. The institute is affiliated with Johns Hopkins University.
Two out of three parents reported their children had a "close call" with a traffic-related incident. One-third said a child nearly drowned. Fifty-eight percent reported wandering as the most stressful of all autism-related behaviors.
On Tuesday, the body of Blake Murrell, a 4-year-old with autism who had wandered from his home in Cushing, Okla., was found in a pond. In 2010, 10 children with autism died after wandering off, according to the Krieger institute.
"There have been instances in my own practice where families have experienced [wandering] and it is very distressing when it occurs," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park.
Adesman, who was not involved in the survey, added that children wander for different reasons. "In some cases, it's just wanderlust. For others it's avoidance, and still others have a destination in mind," he said.
Even though the survey shows a decline in wandering as individuals age, dropping substantially by teenage years, the problem continues into adulthood, according to Ernst VanBergeijk, executive director of the Vocational Independence Program at the New York Institute of Technology in Central Islip.
VanBergeijk works with young adults who have a range of neurologically based learning disabilities, including Asperger syndrome -- so-called high-functioning autism. He said another frightening aspect of wandering is the tendency to be easily lured into harm's way.
Stranger-danger awareness, he said, is lacking among many with Asperger's.
"They have no sense of guile," he said. "They are very, very trusting, which makes them vulnerable."