Autistic Boy Found After 24-Hour Search

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This story is told through the eyes of Julie Eckhardt, mother of 8-year-old Younger Eckhardt who wandered into the wilderness and got lost near his Gibson Ranch home Tuesday.

At 5:53 a.m. Wednesday Younger was found. His mother hopes this story will help us all see him.

Younger is an autistic child.

At 5:30 p.m. I noticed he was gone.

He goes outside to play every afternoon. It's not uncommon for an autistic child to just wander off, and that's why we usually check on him a lot and keep a close eye on him. He was outside about 15 minutes when I went out to check, but he was gone.

First, we looked at the neighbor's house and around the entire neighborhood. Then we called 911.

Of course it's every parent's worse nightmare to not know where your child is - it's a terrible feeling. But this is an autistic child, he won't be aware that he is in any danger. You may remember a few years ago when an autistic child climbed to the top of a tall radio tower in Phoenix.

To them, it's kind of like an adventure. That may sound ridiculous, but it's true. When Younger was brought home, I think he learned some lessons from all this, but he probably also enjoyed the freedom of being able to walk and explore wherever he wanted to go.

Every child likes to explore, especially an 8-year-old boy, but the difference is that a typical 8-year-old boy would know when it starts to get dark out there that it's time to turn around. An autistic boy is not able to understand danger or that people may be looking for him. It's like having tunnel vision -- he's focused on what he's doing and nothing else matters. I think that's why he wandered so far.

When it got dark, I'm almost positive he just kept walking. It was a full moon and we didn't get any rain here. What was probably going through his mind was that he loves water. We do a lot of hiking as a family and he loves to play in water. I'm sure that's why he walked along the creek bed. I don't have a clue why he eventually went up the side of the mountain. He didn't have any water with him and I'm not sure if he drank from the creek.

(While Younger does not generally talk, he can draw and sometimes writes a few words to communicate.)

Yesterday when he was brought home - because he cannot communicate well using words - he drew me a picture. He drew mountains, stars in the sky, a bat in the air, a trail and a stream, and this is where they had found him. He had walked down the creek bed and up the side of a mountain. After he drew this picture he poured himself a tall glass of water and took my hand and led me out the door as if to take me along with him, like he wanted to go again, but this time with water and his map. This shows me he was not aware that he was in danger at all, just on an adventure.

Constantly, the whole night, all I could focus on was finding him. When it's your child, you can't stop and think about anything because you want to put all your energy into finding him. All night we walked the creek area calling for him.

This was a frightening situation, but some good may come from it if it helps people understand autism. When Channel 3 came up here I didn't want to talk to them because I didn't want this to be just another drama for them to have a story. I want this to be an opportunity for people to understand my child and the thousands of other children like him - to know that raising an autistic child is an everyday challenge. There are an infinite amount of things you have to worry about that you don't with a typical child. When I'm with my son, I get looks because he's acting a certain way. That hurts.

At the same time I would never wish for him to not be in our lives. (Eckhardt spoke through tears at this point in the interview.) He is an irreplaceable part of our family. If we had lost him I don't think I could have recovered from that because he brings so much happiness to our home. He makes us laugh. We love him and he knows that.

A lot of people think autistic children are retarded, but they are very smart and very capable of feelings. The day he was rescued Younger wrote on a piece of paper "Family home again." So I knew he was happy to see us.

According to Lt. Adam Shepherd of the Gila County Sheriff's Office, coordinated search and rescue efforts began at 6:53 p.m. Tuesday involving Tonto Apache Police, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, Gila County Sheriff's Posse, Payson Police Department, search canines from Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Scottsdale Police Department, Maricopa County Search and Rescue, a thermal imaging device provided by the Payson Fire Department, and a helicopter from Department of Public Safety.

Facts about autism

Autism is a severe disorder of communication and behavior, typically characterized by a profound and almost total withdrawal from all human contact. Many autistic children are unable to speak. The cause of autism is unknown.

For more information about autism and links to other related sites, visit www.autism.org

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