The parents of a 4-year-old autistic boy who was found wandering were arrested on Tuesday on charges of injury to a child. On September 15, police had responded to a report of a missing child in in Plainfield, Connecticut; the child had, said police, left home without his parents noticing. Neighbors found Curtis and Jennifer Youngdahl’s son wandering and barefoot near their residence. The Youngdahls turned themselves in on Tuesday after learning of a warrant for their arrest and are to appear in Danielson Superior Court on November 14.
I don’t know more of the details about the Youngdahls and their son beyond some news reports. Reports of autistic children wandering are not at all uncommon. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that “wandering” will be classified as a medical diagnosis for autistic children. The director of AutismNJ once noted to me that one of the problems of autistic children wandering and being lost is that, from their perspective, they’re not lost. They know where they are; the problem is, it very likely does not occur to an autistic child to communicate to someone that they want to go off somewhere. How do you teach someone that they are lost if that concept just doesn’t make sense to them?
Teaching my 14-year-old son Charlie to wear and present ID is actually part of his school curriculum. He has wandered and we have had to contact New Jersey police who, happily, have responded by making every effort (three squad cars and a police dog) to locate Charlie (he was found in under an hour). Just last Friday, 8-year-old Robert Wood, who is also autistic, was found after being missing since Sunday in the 80-acre North Anna Battlefield Park in Doswell, Virginia, near Richmond.
Robert remains hospitalized while doctors try to repair a hole in his esophagus. He is non-verbal and not able to explain what happened, but it is thought that he may have tried to eat, or actually eaten, something that made the hole. Some other reports of autistic children who have gone missing end in tragedy: 10-year-old Kristina Vlassenko was found in a water-filled hole at a construction site in Arvada, Colorado. She was wearing a LifeTrak device which apparently did not work because it was submerged in water.
In another case, an 8-year-old autistic girl, Ayn Van Dyke, was taken back in June by Child Protective Services of British Columbia for reasons of “safety.” A few days before she was taken, she had been found playing in a neighbor’s backyard. Her father, Derek Hoare, has dedicated all of his efforts to working round the clock to get her home.
Other parents beside the Youngdahls have faced legal charges after a child was found wandering. In Aurora, Colorado, an 11-year-old autistic boy, Brandon Wells, was missing for several hours in June of this year. 9 News says that he was wearing a Life Trak device, but the battery was dead and his parents face charges for not charging it; his parents had already faced similar charges. There are cases of parent negligence but — perhaps one reason I find the issue of wandering to be a very delicate topic — there are also cases of parents doing everything they can and still discovering that their child has wandered. Could the Connecticut case set a dangerous precedent or will it be seen a very specific case?
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