"The man knew something was wrong with Matthew, but he was too afraid of being considered a kidnapper to put him in his car and drive him home," she said.
Today, Matthew is 25 and living at a home with other adults with disabilities. One cold, rainy night, Matthew left the facility without telling anyone, planning to walk 12 miles to see his friend in another town. A police officer found him shivering on the steps of an office building, 3 miles from home.
"It scared me to death," Christiaanse said. "We feel lucky and blessed that he might have a guardian angel looking after him -- all of these things could have ended really disastrously."
Autism experts don't really know why people with autism have a tendency to wander. Christiaanse believes it's related to the problems in making social connections -- it simply doesn't occur to her son to let someone know that he's headed out.
Another characteristic of autism is having obsessive interests, Dawson said. "A child might have an obsession with street signs, so they'll leave home intending on going back to see a street sign that they saw earlier in the day," she explained.
And some cases have ended in tragedy. In July, Mason Medlam, a 5-year-old Kansas boy with autism, drowned in a pond near the family's home. The family knew the child wandered and had a fascination with water, his mother testified during a meeting of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee in October in Bethesda, Maryland.
"I was hyper-vigilant with him. I knew he had absolutely no concept of danger. I knew he was a runner, and I knew he would be attracted to the most a
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