Losing Max: Preventing Autistic Children From Wandering

Max Masucci was diagnosed with autism two years ago.

The five-year-old loves to jump, swing and explore.

His father, Greg Masucci, explained, “I believe Max's normal state of being, when you lean back on your chair and suddenly go too far and lose your balance? That feeling of disequilibrium? I feel for Max that's how he feels in a stationary state."

But Max's dizzying routine came to a halt when his dad tried to pick him up at Walker Jones Elementary in northeast DC.

Masucci said, “I asked, ‘Where was Max?’ and they said, ‘The classroom.’  I went to the classroom and they said he's out on the playground."

On the playground, Greg found one of Max's aides, but no Max.

"I knew from the look on his face he didn't know where he was,” Masucci recalled.  “So, I ran through a bunch of classrooms looking for him and couldn't find him."

Greg finally found Max on the other end of the soccer field, headed toward on-coming traffic.

Greg would later discover this wasn't the first time. Internal school records show Max repeatedly tried to climb the playground fence and wandered away at least four times in a two-month period. But no one ever alerted Greg or his wife.

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated "wandering" a "life-threatening" condition, meaning schools are required by law to take special precautions to prevent children with autism from wandering.

“It’s a leading cause of death for youngsters with autism," explained Ann Boeker Gibbons, executive director of Autism Speaks for the National Capital Region. "They may be fleeing something that a teacher or a parent doesn't realize is a stressor. They may also be running to something that fascinates them. They can't articulate why it fascinates them and may not be able to appreciate the danger."

Gibbons said as many as half of children with autism will wander before they turn 17.

The National Autism Association gave an even more alarming statistic.  According to the national autism awareness group, one in every five children with autism on the Missing and Exploited Children's website vanished when they were supposed to be in school.

D.C. Public Schools Chief of Special Education Dr. Nathaniel Beers told the News 4 I-Team, “We shouldn't expect our teachers to feel like they can't ask for help when they have kids at risk."

Dr. Beers is not allowed to talk specifically about Max's case but said he takes wandering seriously. "We go out almost every day to assess the risk to students and whether or not they need additional supports to keep them safe and wandering is a piece of keeping them safe."

But when the News 4 I-Team asked to see data on how often kids in DCPS wander away - DCPS admitted it didn't know.

Of all the school systems in our region, only Fairfax and Montgomery counties could provide wandering stats from the past two years. Fairfax said it lost "one student" when he "left his classroom and was found in a remote corner of the school building."  Montgomery estimated "we have around 10 students on any given year" at risk of wandering.

Dr. Beers said, “The compilation of that data has not happened for us and is certainly something we should explore."

But Greg said instead of fixing the problem, DCPS teacher’s tried to solve Max’s wandering by attaching a bike lock to a broken gate – something both sides agree wasn’t the appropriate solution.
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Max’s parents are now trying to find a way to get Max placed in a specialized private school.

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