SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Mohamed Fofana, a 4-year-old boy with autism described as nonspeaking, was found dead on the shoreline of Spectacle Island on Monday after being reported missing at Castle Island over the weekend. His death echoes similar cases of children with autism spectrum disorder who have either drowned or died near bodies of water after wandering off.

Children on the autism spectrum may leave a safe setting where they are supervised if they are overstimulated, said Lori McIlwain, the co-founder of the National Autism Association. In cases like these, some children with autism may wander off to a “low-sensory area,” such as a body of water, to ease their nerves.

In theory, water can provide a therapeutic value for children with ASD, which has a calming effect on them, McIlwain said. But it can also be dangerous.

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“These kids do have a diminished sense of fear,” said Dr. John E. Bischoff III, the vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Missing Children Division.

Nearly 85% of accidental deaths among children with ASD were attributed to drowning incidents, according to a decade-long analysis from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

In the early 2000s, the organization noticed an increase in reports of missing children with autism, Bischoff said. In collaboration with autism advocacy groups, the organization developed protocols to assist in finding these children. One protocol involved alerting callers to search near bodies of water when reporting a missing child who has autism.

Research shows that young children with autism are especially prone to wandering off. One study that surveyed 1,218 children on the spectrum found that nearly half of them had wandered off at least once in their lifetimes, with 26% of respondents reporting being missing long enough to cause serious concern.

In Fofana’s case, the young boy was last seen heading toward the waters on Sunday night. The Massachusetts State Police Department, which led the search for the young boy, found a blue Croc shoe — similar to the one Fofana was last wearing — in the water.

Last month, Maddelynn Wallace, a 10-year-old Maryland girl who had autism, was reported missing after she had wandered off from her home in Brandywine, NBC Washington reported. A day later, authorities found her body in a quarry near her Charles County home.

“It’s incredibly sad for a lot of our kids, they’re doing their best all the time,” McIlwain said. “The sensory volume of their world is just always on high and they’re coping with it the best that they can. And when you have that one more thing that’s added on top of everything else that they’re dealing with, that fight-or-flight reaction happens quite often.”

Typically the main triggers for children with ASD to wander off are noise, stressful situations or commotion, McIlwain said. Especially during the summer months, when there are more outings, it’s easier for children with ASD to become overstimulated and “slip away” to head toward water.

It is a common assumption that when a child with ASD drowns, they have accidentally fallen into water. However, in McIlwain’s experience, most of the time the child had entered the water willingly.

Last May, Xavier Rigney, a Kansas 4-year-old with autism, jumped into a pool in an apartment complex after he snuck through a locked fence, ABC 7 Chicago reported. The child was saved by a neighbor who performed CPR on him after being in the water for a few minutes.

According to McIlwain, adults with autism who wandered toward water bodies in their youth claimed they were aware of their actions, but almost couldn’t stop themselves.

“So there’s an impulsivity here,” she said. “For certain individuals and other individuals, they absolutely do not have that safety awareness. So really, it does depend on the individual, but most of the time they’re going to a quiet area because they are overstimulated.”

Parents of children on the autism spectrum have a genuine fear of their child wandering away. Bischoff said he’s met with parents who go to extreme lengths to protect their children. Some sleep on their child’s bedroom floor to prevent nighttime escapes, while others install security cameras inside their homes to ensure their child doesn’t slip away unnoticed.

“It’s a difficult road some of these parents really walked down each and every day,” said Bischoff. “They’re doing their absolute best to prepare to protect these children who have autism.”

Bischoff suggests that parents enroll their children in swimming lessons at their local YMCA to keep them safe from drowning.

“People just need to really educate themselves on the topic and if they have a child who has autism, to understand the possibilities that could happen and the unfortunate outcomes that could happen.”

© 2023 Advance Local Media LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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