Bush survival experts say AJ Elfalak, 3, who survived in rugged bushland surrounding his family’s home for three nights, may have been kept calm and ultimately alive by his autism.
AJ disappeared on Friday morning and a frantic search by police, SES, volunteers and family turned up no sign of him for 72 hours.
He was rescued in dramatic fashion about 11.30am on Monday after a police helicopter sighted the boy, who is autistic and non-verbal, drinking water from a creek several hundred metres from his family’s home.
Conspiracy theories circulated on social media that his disappearance was staged, and that a young boy could not survive alone with food or water in such inhospitable terrain – where overnight temperatures were as low as 2C.
However, detectives investigating the circumstances of the toddler’s disappearance – said AJ’s injuries and condition when he was found were all consistent with him being in the bush the entire time.
And, bush survival experts aiding the investigation say his autism may have actually helped him maintain a calm state of mind.
“The reality is he didn’t know he was lost, so he wasn’t scared, he didn’t panic,” an investigator told the Daily Mail Australia.
“If he was tired, he slept … he had access to water, which is a big thing for survival in the bush.”
When AJ was rescued, paramedics said he ravenously ate an entire pizza and guzzled water – which is indicative of someone who hadn’t eaten for days.
“He was starving … it’s all consistent with him being in the bush the entire time,” a paramedic said.
The Child Mind Institute (CMI) says children with autism often have “a weaker sense of danger” than others and enjoy exploration.
“Kids with autism may wander because they have a weaker sense of danger than other kids,” it says.
“Or they may get fixated on exploring something interesting. Others may be trying to leave situations that make them anxious. They might also want to escape overwhelming sensory experiences, like loud noises or bright lights.”
It says that autistic children who wander are at high risk of getting lost or hurt – because they can end up in dangerous places like motorways or bodies of water.
AJ was discovered in a creek near his home on Monday, and the CMI said it is very common for “wandering” children with autism to be drawn to water.
“One theory is that it has an alluring, calming effect due to the repetitive pattern of reflections, or the way it puts even pressure on the body, which sensory-seeking children may enjoy,” it says.
Bush survival expert Bob Cooper, who works with the SAS on living in tough environments, told Daily Mail Australia that AJ had a second natural advantage.
“Children are better than adults at surviving sometimes because they haven’t got the preconceived idea of what the bush is like,” Cooper said.
“When they feel tired they sleep, when they’re cold they seek shelter, when they’re thirsty they drink.”
He said an average human can survive for three weeks without food provided they can keep warm, drink water and stay safe from the elements.
Aviation Commander Detective Superintendent Brad Monk said it was likely search crews could have walked past AJ during the three-day search.
“It was very, very dense; hence why the little fella was not found so quickly,” he said.
“He was only located within 200m of the house. There is no doubt emergency services during that search passed closely by the little boy who may have even been sleeping at the time.”
On Tuesday, AJ was photographed for the first time since being released from Maitland Hospital.
Pictures taken by NCA NewsWire show the Elfalak family celebrating with a traditional Lebanese barbecue and bonfire.
The boy was relatively unscathed but had nappy rash, ant bites and had fallen over, according to his father, Anthony Elfalak.
Pictures show AJ also had some small scratches on his face.
Family said on Tuesday, AJ had slept through the night and woke Tuesday morning to a celebration at his home.
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