When Alex Swigart, a 12-year-old boy with autism, smelled smoke in his Arizona home in the middle of the night, he acted like a hero. He went and woke his father, who got everyone out of the house. Everyone was okay, and it would have been a wonderful story if it had ended there. Unfortunately, it didn't.
For some unexplained reason, the boy ran back into the mobile home. By the time firefighters arrived, it was engulfed in flames, and they couldn't rescue the boy who had just rescued his family. He died.
His father, Joseph Swigart, said he must have gotten confused by all the chaos as he himself ran to get a hose. He told KGUN:
I realized at the time he wasn't there. By the time I got back up on the porch, fire engulfed the living room. I ran around the side of the house. I tried to go inside. I had four Border Patrol men grab me and drag me back to the road. They wouldn't let me go back inside.
I yelled inside the window and I heard him say, "Daddy I can't breathe!"
My heart aches for this family and their loss. Sadly, there are thousands of other families out there who lose autistic children when they get confused or disoriented and wander off into all sorts of dangerous situations
I see the headlines weekly -- autistic man or woman, teen, or toddler has gone missing. Last month in Australia, a 7-year-old autistic boy was struck by a train and killed after wandering away from his home. Right now in Canada, a search was called off yesterday for a 3-year-old autistic boy who has been missing more than three days.
When asked to comment on the pressing problem of autistic children wandering and being confused by their environment, Veronica Fraser, whose 7-year-old autistic son, James Delorey, died two years ago after wandering away from his home, told The Vancouver Sun: "It's really unpredictable where they're going to be. You have to think of them as a cross between someone with Alzheimer's and someone escaping from jail."
There are various electronic bracelets and other methods to help ensure the safety of autistic individuals, but in the case of this fire and the ensuing confusion, there's likely little that would have helped. But it's an important story to tell if for no other reason than to continue to bring awareness to the disease and the challenges it presents in the lives of those affected. Best wishes to this family as they heal and mourn their hero.
If you have an autistic child, has he or she ever wandered away or into a dangerous situation?
Image via Editor B/Flickr