Expert sheds light on disorder, helps explain how autistic 7-year-old drowned

Hannah Ross

Hannah Ross, an autistic 7-year-old girl, was found in the bottom of a lake at Fort Gordon on Sunday. (WRDW-TV / April 30, 2012)

News 12 at 11 o' clock / Monday, April 30, 2012

FORT GORDON, Ga. -- It's a fear all parents dread. Your child is separated from you, and panic sets in.

The situation only becomes more desperate if your child has autism.

This fear became all too real for 7-year-old Hannah Ross's family this weekend, and Sunday afternoon, those fears turned to nightmares.

Amy Cliett, a behavior analyst who specializes in children with autism, spoke to News 12 to help shed some light on the thought process of children with the disorder.

"You turn around and you call her name. But she doesn't come. And so you step out of the garage, and you look left and you look right, and you don't see her," Cliett said.

It's a story Cliett says is all too familiar for families with autistic children.

"It happens all the time. They're curious by nature. Very rarely do they have any sense of danger," she said.

Hannah's family had just moved from California to Fort Gordon a week ago, and they were still adjusting to their new home.

"Small transitions are rough for these kids," Cliett said. "Big transitions can be devastating."

Hannah's stepfather last saw her in the family's garage. He turned around for a split second, and she was gone.

"You have a child who doesn't necessarily follow directions really well, doesn't come when she's called," she said.

Divers found Hannah's body at the bottom of a lake behind her house Sunday afternoon.

"Many of the children with autistic traits are drawn to water. And it's my understanding that this little girl liked to splash in the water when she was upset. It was a way for her to self-regulate -- or calm herself down," Cliett said.

But says that this could happen to any parent, especially a parent of an autistic child.

"Parents can't be handcuffed to these kids. They've got to go to the bathroom on occasion," she said.

With no witnesses, we may never know exactly why Hannah wandered to the lake, but we do know an entire military community is mourning her loss.

Cpt. Nino Philakham, a soldier at Fort Gordon, helped search for Hannah.

"We care for our own and so we feel like this is our daughter," he said.

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