The Dangers of Autism

But as people with autism grow older and begin navigating the social world on their own, they are naturally in danger of falling victim to physical danger, crime, or social exclusion.

Jodie Bouvery, a board member of Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children, an aid and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., has an autistic son who was a "wanderer." When he was very young, Bouvery would often use a leash in public so he would not get lost.

"People really give you a lot of grief for that," Bouvery said. "There is not practical awareness in the community at large. It's not just losing a child. ... It's never to find him again."

People with autism tend to have poor impulse control and can wander at will, touching whatever they find interesting, irrespective of social norms.

Wandering, coupled with their affinity for water as a fascinating, interactive element, can put people with autism at risk for drowning. In fact, drowning is the leading cause of death in the autistic community, Debbaudt said.

Autism Affects Pain Response

Self-injurious behavior can be another frightening consequence of being on the autism spectrum, because these individuals do not process pain signals the same way a neurotypical person would.

"A lot of individuals with autism have reduced sensitivity in the hands and feet," said Ian Paregol, executive director of CSAAC, citing examples when autistic people will stomp around or tap on walls. "They want to figure out where they end and that wall begins."

But while repetitive behaviors, such as tapping on walls or rocking back and forth, are hallmark behaviors of autism, the problem occurs when these behaviors escalate and the autistic person begins hurting themselves or someone else. And constant vigilance can be draining to a parent or caretaker.

"You don't get a break, and it can be draining," Shinnar said. "They need a lot of structure. Left to their own devices, their lack of ability to communicate in the social sense, even when they can talk, is when they get into trouble."

But leaving people on the autism spectrum to their own devices is one of the goals of the educational and therapeutic picture for a family, which can be the most challenging and frightening part of the disorder.

"As a parent, your nature is to protect," said Marguerite Colston, a spokeswoman for the Autism Society of America. "Sometimes fear of these risks ... can cause you to exclude a person with autism from their community.

"Our biggest sin is we're so protective."

Even after three higher education degrees, marriage, and three children, Willey said she can still feel uneasy, never quite knowing whether something is true or not.

Read/Watch the Entire Series: Autism in America

"I think some of the vulnerabilities are forever," Willey said. "I don't know if we learn not to be vulnerable, but we learn to cope with it."

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