THURSDAY, March 24 (HealthDay News) -- Many parents know that heart-stopping feeling of being at the park or the mall, and suddenly losing track of their child. For the parents of autistic children, those concerns can be even more intense.
Though wandering is often associated with Alzheimer's, autism experts say a tendency to wander is an under-recognized, and harrowing, facet of the neurodevelopmental disorder.
Autistic children who've wandered off may not realize they're lost, so it never occurs to them to ask for help finding their way home, said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for Autism Speaks. Some may realize they're lost but won't -- or can't -- ask for help because of the speech and social difficulties that come with disorder. Others may even hide or run if approached by a police officer or someone else trying to help.
And while typical toddlers tend to grow out of wandering and learn that it's important to tell mom or dad where they're going, autistic children's wandering may persist into adulthood.
Carol Christiaanse, a mother of two from Westport, Conn., has been there. Her son, Matthew, is now 25 and has an autism spectrum disorder called "pervasive development disorder-not otherwise specified."
When Matthew was 4, Christiaanse and her family went to a fall festival at the local high school. She turned her back momentarily, and when she turned back, Matthew was gone. There were police at the festival, who said they'd make an announcement over the loudspeakers.
"They were trying to be helpful and they said, 'Don't worry. When he hears his name, he'll identify himself to someone'," Christiaanse recalled. "I said, 'No, he won't. He doesn't respond to his name.'"
A half hour later, a groundskeeper found Matthew headed down the road towards the neighboring town.
Another time, Christiaanse's daughter found Matthew walking down the
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