Lost in Desert, Autistic Man Craved Human Contact
28-year-old William Martin LeFever survived at least three weeks wandering in the remote Escalante Desert of southern Utah by eating mostly frogs and roots. When found, LeFever was “delirious and emaciated.” But what he craved the most was not food or water, but human contact, says Garfield County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Becki Bronson in the Denver Post:
[Garfield County, Utah sheriff's Deputy Ray] Gardner told me that he was so starved for human contact, when he walked up to him, he would not stop talking. It was hard work to get him to stop talking long enough to get him to eat something.
The exact details of how LaFever ended up on his three-week desert trek are unclear. From reading accounts of his ordeal, it seems that he has been able (I could be wrong) to live (somewhat) independently and that he has more speech than my teenage son Charlie, who is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. While LeFever had plenty of food and a dog when he started out, LeFever did not entirely grasp what he was getting into when he set out around June 6 or 7 for Page, Arizona.
Authorities have speculated that LeFever, who lives in Colorado Spring, started somewhere where Utah Highway 12 crosses the Escalante, between Boulder and the town of Escalante. He had apparent decided to go hiking in early June and contacted his father for money after his hiking equipment had been stolen (a detail that makes me wonder, had he been taken advantage of, perhaps?). LeFever’s father said he would wire him money in Page.
But they did not discuss how LeFever would get there and his father did not realize his son would hike along the Escalante River and in what Bronson describes to Time magazine as the “most rugged, unforgiving terrain you will find anywhere on Earth, jagged cliffs, stone ledges, sandstone, sagebrush, juniper.” LeFever’s sister called authorities after the family had no contact with him for weeks.
Deputy Gardner had only had training about autism a few weeks earlier before undertaking the search for LeFever. The Denver Post says that Gardner drew on something he’d been told, that many autistic individuals are drawn to water, and so directed the search along the Escalante River. LeFever was found on Thursday “5 miles from where the Escalante River dumps into Lake Powell… weakly waving one hand toward rescuers.” Sadly, LeFever’s dog was lost and has not been found.
LaFever’s three-week ordeal in the desert refutes the “myth of the person alone.” Autistic individuals are often thought to be aloof and to shun interacting with others. It is the case that many autistic individuals, and certainly Charlie, struggle with social interactions and in social situations, with making conversation and “small talk,” with understanding gestures and body language and much more. But while having a profound difficulty with knowing how to interact with people, Charlie, and many autistic individuals have a deep desire and need to be with other people.
LaFever was flown to Garfield Memorial Hospital after he was found.
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Photo by djuggler