How this non-verbal autistic man was rescued from the northern Ontario bush


Kaelan Shawana’s family feared the worst after the 24-year-old left his Manitowaning home on Monday in northern Ontario and was nowhere to be found. 

The non-verbal autistic man from Wikwemikong First Nation is a big guy at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds but functions at the level of a seven-year-old, according to his father, Robbie Shawana. 

“He doesn’t understand danger. He has no fear.” 

Kaelan sometimes wanders off, especially to go to the nearby playground. He usually wears a GPS tracker so his family can easily locate him.

But on Monday afternoon, he changed his outfit before heading out, leaving his tracker behind. 

By the time his family started to realize something was wrong, the sun was going down.

“I was panicking knowing he wasn’t dressed for the night and it was only going to get colder,” said Robbie, whose son was only wearing an orange golf shirt despite subzero temperatures. 

“That part really scared me.” 

OPP, K-9 units and others involved in search

Manitoulin OPP, emergency response teams, K-9 units, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the Township of Assignack and communities across Manitoulin Island mobilized quickly to begin the search. 

It turned out to be a very long night.

a dog lying in leaves
A team mobilized quickly to help find Kaelan, including Dance, a dog with the Manitoulin OPP K-9 unit that tracked him for 22 kilometres on Monday night and Tuesday morning. (Ontario Provincial Police North East Region/Facebook)

“We didn’t get any sleep,” said Robbie. 

He said everyone feared Kaelan could run into trouble, especially if he walked on the unstable ice of the nearby lake. 

“If he ventured on the ice, then we might be looking at a whole new ball of wax of trying to find him.”

The next day, shortly before 1 p.m., an OPP helicopter located Kaelan on the shores of Mosquito Bay on Lake Manitou and brought him home.

Based on the dog’s tracking work, Manitoulin OPP told the family they estimated Kaelan walked some 20 kilometres throughout the night.

“He walked around in circles, and walked around in squares and walked around in triangles all over the place. He was just kind of wandering around aimlessly it looked like,” said his father. 

He suffered bruises, scratches, mild hypothermia, dehydration, hunger and fatigue, but is now recovering, according to his family. 

A man covered in blankets and tinfoil.
Shawana, 24m was only wearing a T-shirt when he wandered off in subzero temperatures on Monday. (Robbie Shawana/Facebook)

“He seems to be back to his normal self. Even though he can’t tell me, I’m sure he did experience some type of trauma,” said his dad.

“We’re just very full of gratitude and overwhelmed with joy.”

Autism Ontario wants notification system

Kaelan’s story sounded familiar to Autism Ontario spokesperson Michael Cnudde.

He cited a recent case involving a child who wondered off and was found in the ditch of a freeway in an urban area. 

“Often these children don’t understand the higher risk of something, whether it be a traffic accident or drowning.” 

Cnudde said parents do their best to prevent this by buying extra door locks or GPS trackers, but these aren’t perfect systems. 

He said the province should set up some type of notification system, like an Amber Alert, to notify communities when vulnerable people go wandering.

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