Miraculously, 8-year-old Robert Wood, Jr. survived for five days in the 80-acre North Anna Battlefield Park in Doswell, Virginia, near Richmond. The severely autistic boy, who is non-verbal, wandered away while his father, brother and a friend were taking a break on a walk last Sunday. Some 940 volunteers helped to conduct 74 search missions for Robert. Happily, on Friday night, a volunteer found him lying in a creek bed with his shoes off; those were found nearby.
The searcher “placed a stocking cap on Robert’s head, gloves on his hands, wrapped him in a coat, gave him water to drink and then called 911,” Trice reported.
Trice said he has spoken at length with the searcher, who does not wish to be identified. He said the volunteer wished to issue a brief statement: “I was guided by the Holy Spirit; to take any recognition for finding Robert would take credit away from God.”
Robert was taken to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Center and is said to be in stable condition.
Many of the volunteers said that they themselves had a child, a relative, a neighbor who is autistic. Tammy Rogers of Powhatan was one of the first to volunteer to look for Robert; she has two sons who are both autistic and non-verbal, and said that she was so upset about Robert being missing that she spent much of Monday, the day after Robert was reported missing, in tears.
Educators who know Robert say that his being autistic may have helped him survive for so many days in the park, as well as being the reason he wandered away in the first place:
“The first thing that I thought of when I heard that he was missing and I went up there to go look for him is this kid’s going to be OK. He’s a very tough kid, he’s a very resilient kid, he’s resourceful in his own way,” said Adam Dreyfus, who met Robert when Dreyfus was working on a program in the Caroline County school system. He is now a technical assistant with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Autism Center for Excellence.
“He’s a … determined little boy, and I knew that … given enough time that we were going to find him because he would be able to kind of navigate his way out there and keep himself out of trouble.”
For one thing, Robert might not have been aware of how unsafe his situation was and as a result probably didn’t become as panicked as another child might. He might not have been as receptive to the temperatures and to being hungry, said Kathy Mathews, executive director of education at The Faison School for Autism, where Robert started in September.
I routinely read about autistic children wandering off; my own 14-year-old son Charlie has done this. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that “wandering” will be classified as a medical diagnosis for autistic children. Educators and parents go out of their way not only to prevent a child from wandering and going missing, but — one has to be realistic — strategizing about how to teach a child to know what to do in such a situation, such as recognizing who a policeman is (and who isn’t — a very difficult thing to teach). Most autistic children who wander very likely do not think they are lost. According to a Research Report: Elopement and Wandering by the Interactive Autism Network, a third of autistic children who wander or elope are “never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number verbally or by writing/typing.”
Charlie now carries identification in the form of a card with his name, our cell phone numbers and a statement about his autism diagnosis and minimal speech. But we also have to teach him to show his ID when asked. There are tracking devices such as the Care Trak tracking device and we have some friends whose children wear devices provided by Project Lifesaver; if Charlie were to wear one, we would have to teach him to wear it and not try constantly to take it off.
Most of all, I’m more than grateful that Robert was found on Friday night, before Saturday’s storm hit — thank you, thank you to the anonymous rescuer — and hope he can be soon back home, safe and sound.
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