When a Child With Autism Goes Missing – a Mother’s Story


adv_autism-speaksThis blog post provided by Nancy O’Brien and the Autism Speaks Chicagoland Chapter.

Wandering, or elopement has increasingly become a concern for both families of individuals with autism as well as response teams.

There can be various reasons an individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may wander, including wanting to get to something, wanting to get away from something or gravitating towards something of interest. If certain sounds or sensory input in an environment become bothersome, they may want to get away from it. In most cases the child will slip away without notice.

Across the country, many cities, counties and states have added additional measures to assist in the response of wandering situations. In Illinois, a house bill was signed in July of 2011 for this very purpose. The issue was brought about by Autism Speaks Chicagoland Chapter board member, Nancy O’Brien who approached Mayor DiCianni in 2007 after enduring a two-hour ordeal when her son, James, went missing. The law was named James’ Law in his honor and will be an additional measure to help ensure emergency personnel are able to respond quickly when someone needs assistance and can return them safely.

At the signing of the bill, Nancy shared her story:

Hello everyone, I’m James’ Mom, Nancy O’Brien

4 years ago, on a Saturday morning, we were having a typical Saturday morning. My husband, Jim, was doing some laundry and I was upstairs doing other chores. A few minutes turned into a nightmare.

My husband came upstairs and asked as he had asked a million times before, “Is he with you?” and I said, “No?” and we both immediately headed for the door. I was in flip flops and my husband grabbed his car keys…I started running and he started driving. As I ran down the street, I immediately called out to my neighbors and everyone dropped what they were doing. James was gone.

We are blessed to live on a street with neighbors who have become our best friends. And doubly blessed to live in a community that cares. As I rounded the corner, I ran into the convenience store–”Have you seen my son?”–people stopped and started looking….I ran into the fire station–”My son is lost!”–I started to run some more. I was stopped by police officers. “Go home Mrs. O’Brien. We need you home when we find him.”

Two hours and fourteen minutes. The longest two hours of our lives. I heard stories for days afterwards from friends who were gathered in a fast food restaurant when a paramedic came in yelling that a child was lost. A couple who stopped their garage sale, found a picture of James and photocopied it and started handing it out in downtown Elmhurst. My dear neighbor who went to Salt Creek and prayed he wouldn’t find James. The kids who drove their bikes up and down the Prairie Path and stopped everyone.

Just as the County Bloodhound dogs had started on their trek, a lovely Jewel employee, who happened to be a special ed major at Elmhurst College, spotted James in the DVD section with a bag of Chesse Puffs. She knew the he was special needs and that he shouldn’t be alone.

Two hours later, he was found.

Thank God for this neighborhood and for our neighbors and for our Mayor, who listened when I asked him afterwards that we find a GPS system to help find our kids.

You have given our family and many families of kids with autism and other disorders and adults with Alzheimer’s some peace today.

We did something good today. Thank you for being such good neighbors.

In an emergency situation, the ability to gather additional information on the individual as well as the situation can be extremely beneficial in the effectiveness of the response. This is especially important in the case of a wandering child with ASD. When a parent dials 9-1-1 to report the child missing, having a photo, physical description and rescue notes including details on how the child may respond, how to speak to them, and what behaviors they may exhibit available with that call, responders in the field can take action immediately.

Across the country there are programs like Smart911 and devices available for just this purpose, and any family who has a child that may wander should reach out to their local 9-1-1 center to inquire about them. You can also visit www.smart911.com to see if service is available in your area.

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