‘I knew something was wrong:’ 18-year-old with severe non-verbal autism dies of heat exhaustion

LAWRENCE, Kan. — The extreme heat in Kansas proved deadly for an 18-year-old with autism. His parents are speaking out, hopeful their tragedy will offer a critical lesson for others.

“I remember looking at the nurse saying, ‘why?’ He was just hot. He was just hot. He was such a bright light. He made such fun noises and got joy out of the simplest things,” said Rachel Mikel.

Mikel is still trying to grasp that her son Elijah is gone.

“The silence is deafening,” she said.

Elijah was diagnosed with severe autism at 2 years old. Even though he couldn’t talk, he knew how to have fun and bring joy to others.

“His autism did not define him. He just really put everything into perspective for us and what’s important in life,” said Mikel.

He loved being outside, swimming and going for walks. Like they’d done many times before, Elijah and his caregiver took a trip to the nature trails along Clinton Lake in Lawrence, Kansas last week.

It was a hot day, with temperatures around 102 and a heat index nearing 110. After just 15 minutes outside, Elijah’s caregiver got worried.

“She called me and said ‘something’s not right. He sat down and won’t get back up,'” said Mikel.

Since Elijah had non-verbal autism, the only way the caregiver could tell something was off was through his behaviors.

Mikel was hoping it was just one of Elijah’s stubborn moments, but she rushed to the park to check on him.

“By the time I got there, and saw him, I knew something was wrong,” said Mikel.

They called 911. It turned out, Elijah’s temperature was 108. He was suffering from heat exhaustion. EMTs tried everything to cool him down on the way to the hospital.

“Things looked like they were improving,” said Mikel.

But his temperature didn’t drop enough. Doctors say heat exhaustion rapidly wears out the body’s muscles, including the heart.

“Being outside in the heat on days like this, it really is hard on the body. No matter what age you are, you can get overheated very quickly and the move from heat exhaustion to heat stroke can happen a whole lot faster than many people appreciate,” said Dr. Steve Lauer, University of Kansas Health System associate chair of pediatrics.

And a lot of times, weather warnings about high heat aren’t taken seriously.

“We’re used to that in Kansas. That’s just part of living here. OK, there’s a heat advisory, I’ll run the air conditioner,” said Mikel.

But now, this family has learned the heat can prove deadly, and fast. They’re sharing their story in hopes it might just help save someone’s life.

“Drink water. Take a break. Go inside. This is not a joke. It’s not something that happens to other people. This is real. He was 18 and fairly healthy, so just be cautious,” said Mikel.

Doctors say critical signs of heat illness include excessive sweating and abnormal behaviors or tiredness. If you notice these symptoms, get somewhere out of direct sunlight and drink water. Good hydration is also key to avoiding heat illnesses.

Mikel said her family is grateful for overwhelming support from the Lawrence community, including the doctors and nurses who cared for him in the hospital and EMTs with Douglas County Fire and Medical who helped.

Memorials are being made in Elijah’s memory to the Lawrence Humane Society and Autism Speaks.

His family also hopes Elijah’s story raises awareness of autism.

“I want to stress the autism didn’t define him. He was special regardless. You just never know somebody else’s story. We often had people stare and look and watch us and sometimes have people comment, ‘can’t you keep your kid quiet?’ And I think something I want everyone to know is you just don’t know other people’s stories and how hard we worked just to get him to say two or three words. It was a challenge we lived with, but it made us love him more and it made us realize how precious life was,” said Mikel.