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Autistic boy found alive after two nights in freezing Nova Scotia woods

An autistic boy who spent two frigid nights lost in a densely wooded area of Cape Breton was unconscious and suffering from severe hypothermia Monday when he was found by searchers, an emergency health official says.

Paul Maynard, a spokesman for Nova Scotia’s Emergency Health Services, said seven-year-old James Delorey was in critical condition when he was picked up by helicopter and taken to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, the largest children’s hospital in the Maritimes.

“He had severe hypothermia and was unresponsive,” Maynard said in an interview.

“He did have very weak vital signs. That’s why we transported him and are trying to warm him up and get those vital signs back to a normal range. Our fingers are crossed. Hopefully a miracle will happen and he will pull through.”

Severe hypothermia results when the body’s core temperature drops well below 35 C, resulting in the gradual shutdown of the heart and respiratory system. The early stages result in confusion and irritability, but the latter stages can lead to death if left untreated.

Police say Delorey had wandered away from his home in South Bar on Saturday afternoon while following the family dog, triggering a massive search involving hundreds of people and three aircraft.

Within hours of his disappearance, a large snowstorm moved into the region, dumping up to 15 centimetres on some areas.

The boy was not wearing a winter coat, hat or mittens.

The temperature held at 3 C for most of Saturday night but it dipped to 0 C on Sunday morning as the wind picked up, delivering gusts clocked at almost 70 kilometres per hour.

A rescue helicopter was grounded all day Sunday as the storm lashed the island.

By Monday morning, the temperature had dropped to -3 C.

Desiree Vassallo, a spokeswoman for Cape Breton Regional Police, said the brown-haired boy was found about one kilometre from a temporary police command post in South Bar.

Earlier in the day, his dog – a dalmatian mixed-breed named Chance – returned home on his own.

A professional tracker was brought in to trace the dog’s paw prints, but it was unclear whether they led back to the boy.

The boy was found around 1:30 p.m. in thick underbrush. Paramedics stabilized the boy, but it took more than two hours to get him out of the woods to the waiting chopper.

Paramedics had originally planned to take him to the regional hospital in nearby Sydney, but that idea was dropped when it became clear the boy was in rough shape.

The search was considered particularly difficult because the boy does not speak, which meant he wasn’t expected to respond to searchers’ calls.

Police knew James might not respond to his name, so the decision was made to call out to the dog and offer the boy one of his favourite foods: pizza.

Police said some searchers were also told to say, “Come on, let’s go see mummy.”

Searchers were planning to play recordings of some of James’ favourite music to lure him out of the woods, including selections from the children’s program, “Sesame Street,” and the Irish rock band U2.

It’s common for autistic children to wander off – and James had run away before, usually showing up not far from his home at a neighbour’s residence.

South Bar is about 10 kilometres north of Sydney.