Wandering and drowning are leading causes of death for children with autism, who often have limited communication abilities, impulsive behaviors, and a lack of a sense of danger. On July 27, 2010, Mason Allen Medlam, a 5-year old non-verbal boy with autism, wandered away from his home near Colwich, Kansas and drowned in a pond. His family has set up the Mason Allen Medlam Foundation for Autism Safety to prevent future deaths due to wandering, which is a major problem among children with autism. The family is advocating for a “Mason Alert” that would provide authorities with a registry about children who are at risk for wandering so they can be found more easily. You can sign their petition here.
The federal AMBER Alert is only for children who have been abducted, but the Mason Alert would cover children and adults with autism and other disabilities who are at risk for wandering. The Silver Alert is primarily designed for Alzheimer’s patients.
Mason’s mother, Sheila Medlam, spoke in front of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee Friday at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and told the group, “You have to do something now. Politics shouldn’t be involved. These children, they are gone forever. You don’t have time to wait. You need to do something now.” Members of the National Autism Association also spoke about the problem of wandering and safety.
Medlam described to the group how her son, who was fascinated by water, wandered from the house one day through a window. The Medlams were vigilant about safety. Sheila Medlam said she never slept more than a foot from Mason. The family had multiple locks on every door because they knew Mason was skilled at opening
locks. But on this day the temperature was 105 degrees and the air conditioner was broken. Mason got out through a window. A frantic search was unsuccessful and Medlam found Mason drowned in a pond.
Medlam said a registry would have saved Mason’s life by identifying his attraction to water. Authorities would have likely searched around the nearby pond. Instead, Medlam says, they didn’t take her request seriously.
“By the time I pulled him out of the pond, he had only been gone for a few minutes. The police had actually been there for about 15. At any point if they had gone to the pond they could have saved Mason,” Medlam said.
After flying in from halfway across the country, Medlam had her presentation cut short, a bit rudely (although surely no disrespect was intended), by the chairman of the committee because of time constraints. She wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Welcome to Washington. But her speech was extraordinary and compelling, and by the end of the meeting the IACC had voted to establish a subcommittee devoted to safety issues.
Medlam left the room for a while, and I later caught up with her and interviewed her for Examiner.com. She described what a sheer joy her son was, and talked about her favorite memories of Mason. She told of how he looked at the world as a beautiful place, and how he had no fear of danger.
She said when she first got the news that Mason had autism, she was scared.
“I thought it was the worst news in the world,” she said.
“And then I got to know Mason and there was never one second where I would have traded him for a different child without autism, never one second. Everything he lacked he made up for in some other way. The absolute beauty, you could just see it in his eyes. He saw nothing bad in the world. There was nothing bad in the world. And it’s just constant devastation. It’s a horrific thing to lose your child.”
In the three months since Mason’s death, Medlam has worked as an advocate for safety for children with autism. “I want him to save all his brothers and sisters that have the same problems and issues that he had,” she said.
Just this year there have been multiple cases of children with autism wandering and drowning. During her presentation, Medlam held up photos of her son and eight other children who died after wandering. The cases below are hauntingly similar.
- October 7, Salmon, Idaho: 7-year old boy with autism drowns in river after wandering
- September 14, Barling Creek, Arkansas: 3-year old girl with autism drowns in creek after wandering
- Aug 19, Tuscon, Arizona: 5-year old boy with autism drowns in golf course pond after wandering
- August 3, Austintown, Ohio: 7-year old boy with autism drowns at school pool after wandering
- June 27, Bernards, New Jersey: 8-year old boy with autism drowns in pond after wandering
- June 23, LaCrosse, Wisconsin: 7-year old girl with autism drowns in pool after wandering
Click here for an article listing earlier deaths of children with autism due to of wandering.
The proposed Mason Alert is picking up steam, and Medlam hopes that someday, perhaps soon, law enforcement agencies will create a national registry that would contain not only photos and contact information of people at risk for wandering, but their fascinations, locations of nearby hazards such as pools and ponds, how they react under stress, their communication abilities, and how to approach them.
No matter what happens, Mason will go down as a hero for the awareness raised after his tragedy.
Click here for the Examiner.com article about autism wandering and the proposed Mason Alert. Click here for a video tribute to Mason.