The successful search for a missing autistic boy in Southern California who was found safe and sound this week is a happy but humbling end to a common tale.
Eight-year-old Joshua Robb, who went missing from Twin Peaks elementary school Monday morning, weathered a night of lightning and heavy rain in the woods near the San Bernardino Mountains before he was found Tuesday afternoon. Joshua fled to the forest after squeezing between the bars of a metal playground fence. And it wasn't the first time.
"If it happens once, it will happen again unless you do something about it," said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a neurologist specializing in autism at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, of the tendency for kids with autism to bolt or "elope."
In a 2007 survey by the National Autism Association, 92 percent of parents said their children with an autism spectrum disorder had wandered away from safety at least once.
To help recover kids quickly if they do get away, Jim Nalley and Chris Buehler founded Emfinders -- a Frisco, Texas-based company that makes tracking devices integrated with the national emergency services system. Since 2010, the company has sold more than 4,000 devices, called EmSeeQ, and aided 60 recoveries.
"The first couple hours are the most critical," said Nalley, who named the company Emfinder after his young daughter, Emily. "The average time from when we get a call to the police pick-up is about 30 minutes. That makes me feel good."
The EmSeeQ device looks like a watch with a clasp that can only be opened by a caregiver. It costs $199 up front and $25 a month for the service, which sends a locatable 911 signal when activated.
In May, EmSeeQ helped police find 9-year-old Jakob Lund, who has Asperger's syndrome, just 10 minutes after he wandered from his Spokane, Wash., elementary school. And the device allowed residents of the Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., all of whom were at a high risk for running off, attend a Tennessee Titans game, Nalley said.
Other similar tracking device options are listed on the National Autism Association's website.
Missing Calif. Boy Found Tired, Dehydrated
Joshua Robb was not wearing a tracking device when he disappeared on Monday. But a search and rescue team of more than 40 people and two dogs found him after plodding through the wet brush while a helicopter scanned the forest from above. The team reportedly played music from Ozzy Osbourne -- Robb's favorite heavy metal musician -- to lure him out.
Other autistic children have not been so lucky. A 2010 presentation to the Department of Health and Human Services' Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee reviewed 30 recent fatalities among autistic elopers, many caused by car strikes, accidental drownings or prolonged exposure to the elements.
"Because of the impulsivity and the motor overactivity in autism, or because the individual is pursuing a fascination, they can't appreciate the hazards into which they're putting themselves," said Wiznitzer.
As a result, parents are forced to keep constant watch, erect tall fences and install hard-to-reach deadbolts to keep kids safe. But even with those precautions, elopement remains a common and worrisome problem.
In March 2011, the Interactive Autism Network launched a national survey to study elopement in autism, which researchers hope will shed light on causes and preventive measures.
"Although similar behavior has been studied in Alzheimer's disease, and autism advocates identify elopement as a top priority, virtually no research has been conducted on this phenomenon in ASD," Dr. Paul Law, director of the IAN Project at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said in a statement. "The new survey will provide vital information to families, advocates and policy makers alike as they work to keep individuals with ASD safe."
Wiznitzer said tracking devices are a helpful fail-safe for people who wander.
"Not just kids with autism, but also kids with significant cognitive impairment or problems with impulse control," he said, adding that adults with Alzheimer's or dementia are good candidates, too.