Specialist bush survival experts are convinced ‘miracle boy’ AJ Elfalak coped so well while lost in bushland for three cold nights because his autism kept him calm.
As family and friends celebrated the three-year-old boy’s incredible rescue in the NSW Hunter Valley, police have come to understand how AJ, three, really survived in rugged bushland.
Wild conspiracy theories continue to circulate on social media that AJ’s disappearance was staged, and that a child could not survive alone with food or water in such rugged terrain – where overnight temperatures were as low as two degrees.
But detectives on Strike Force Jaylang – which was set up to investigate 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.
Police have worked with bush survival experts to develop a full picture of AJ’s time away from home – and they suggest his autism actually largely 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 said.
Celebrations were underway from about 1pm on Monday – an hour after word spread that AJ had been found alive
A freshly slaughtered cow was put in a freezer until it was ready to be cooked for the party on Tuesday
This aerial image shows the distance between AJ’s home and the area where he was found – complete with the dense bushland and dangerously steep terrain in between
‘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 and loaded into a waiting ambulance, paramedics said he ravenously ate an entire pizza and ‘guzzled’ water – typical traits 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 says children with autism often have ‘a weaker sense of danger’ than others and enjoy exploration.
They’re also more likely to ‘wander off’ or look to remove themselves from overwhelming sensory experiences.
Children played on the property after AJ was found as their parents celebrated
Mr Cassar queried whether AJ had in fact travelled further from this family home and somehow looped back to the dam where he was found, which is just 500m from his family home and was explored extensively in the days he was missing
And with AJ back home and safely in the arms of his mother, his family hosted an epic party to celebrate.
The local store was cleared out of all booze in stock, a cow was freshly slaughtered and carved up for a BBQ and the music blared.
Grey Gums Cafe owner Kim Grace watched on as all the alcohol she had left in stock – about $700 worth – was packed into a ute and taken back to the Elfalek’s place.
In the back seat was a freshly slaughtered sheep, which was being taken back to AJ’s godfather Alan Hashem, who is renowned for his ‘famous’ lamb.
Meanwhile back at the farm, two freshly-killed cows were already on the barbecue and AJ’s elated dad had extended an invitation to the party to anybody back in locked-down Sydney who was prepared to make the journey.
AJ’s siblings were gushing over their ‘brave baby brother’ when he was found alive, and played happily on Tuesday as their parents celebrated with loved ones
At one stage, a bunch of children and their relatives crossed the road into an open paddock, where they played for hours
‘See that hill back there,’ he told media at his home. ‘There’s going to be a big party on that hill. Anybody who wants to come on down from Sydney is welcome.’
Celebrations were well underway on Tuesday afternoon at the Yengo Drive property in Putty – and the party lasted into the night.
A handful of guests returned to the corner store about 9.30pm that night, hoping to replenish their booze and food supply.
AJ and his mother returned home from Maitland Hospital later that night – telling the guests party time was over because the toddler needed to sleep.
Detectives confirmed an investigation was ongoing into the 72 hours AJ was missing
AJ had two ‘natural survival advantages’
Little AJ’s autism may have helped him to remain calm while lost in the bush, but survival expert Bob Cooper, who works with the SAS on living in tough environments, told Daily Mail Australia 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,’ Mr Cooper said.
‘When they feel tired they sleep, when they’re cold they seek shelter, when they’re thirsty they drink.’
A human can survive for three weeks without food provided they can keep warm, drink water and stay safe from the elements, he noted.
Little AJ was found with minor scratches and bruising to his body. He’d been bitten by ants and had a case of nappy rash, but was otherwise in high spirits.
His overjoyed family said it was a miracle that he’d survived such harsh conditions, including wet weather, 5C temperatures and unforgiving terrain.
As Tuesday afternoon wore on, more and more guests packed their cars, said their goodbyes to little AJ and were on their way.
Locals say members of the search party, which included dozens of the Elfalak’s loved ones, had travelled from Sydney in a desperate attempt to help find the little boy.
AJ’s siblings played amongst themselves on Tuesday afternoon as their little brother rested inside
Some relatives rushed to the local store where they bought $700 worth of booze, while others prepared the meat and the house for a party
All guests have since been urged to get tested for Covid after a local volunteer from a nearby monastery who helped to search for the little boy returned a positive result on Tuesday.
‘We could all have it,’ a concerned local said.
But Covid was the furthest thing from the minds of AJ’s loved ones, who were simply relieved to have him back at home.
Later on Tuesday afternoon, those who remained at the family home settled back into reality.
Children were overjoyed after AJ was found, playing amongst each other and thanking the volunteers
The older children got back on their buggies and crossed the street to play in the expansive fields with the ponies and alpacas.
They did laps of the huge property, reveling in the open space again after so many days of crowds and emergency crews parked where they would normally play.
Smaller kids stayed closer to home, climbing on the rock formations and playing tag games with each other through the hedges.
AJ, meanwhile, watched on from the safety of his home, clinging to his mother.
Relatives say he is yet to leave her side.
The adults spent the afternoon relaxing after Monday night’s festivities, laughing as the kids ran around and cooking up more meat on the outdoor fire pit.
It appears they’re all ready to move past the horrors of the past 96 hours and get back to enjoying their ‘oasis’ in the Outback.
AJ’s father fronted the media to reveal the toddler was safe and well with his mum after the rescue – and invite guests from Sydney to their celebratory party
Volunteers worked around-the-clock for four days to locate the little boy
Professional tracker brought in to help determine how little AJ wound up in the bush
Pictured: Bush tracker Jake Cassar
AJ Elfalak’s family is relying on the opinion of a professional bush tracker to help them understand how the toddler spent three nights alone in the unforgiving terrain behind their home.
Jake Cassar has been at the family home in Putty, 150km northwest of Sydney in the Upper Hunter Valley, since Saturday, volunteering his expertise to help track AJ.
He told Daily Mail Australia on Tuesday he couldn’t rule out that the three-year-old was abducted, and said his job was to consider all possible scenarios.
‘I’m here to keep an open mind,’ he said.
‘The way I see it, if you’ve got two feet and a heartbeat anything is possible. Doesn’t matter if you’re a 97-year-old woman or a three-year-old boy.’
Mr Cassar queried whether AJ had in fact travelled further from the home and somehow looped back to where he was found, which is just 500m from his family home and was explored extensively in the days he was missing.
The professional tracker remained close to the family since arriving and was spotted in khaki clothing on Tuesday to head into the ditch where AJ was spotted.
He said he planned to head down with his search party and explore the area to find any potential paths that AJ might have taken.
Mr Cassar told Daily Mail Australia on Tuesday he couldn’t rule out that the three-year-old was abducted, and said his job was to consider all possible scenarios. ‘I’m here to keep an open mind,’ he said. Mr Cassar (right) is pictured with AJ’s mother Kelly
The entrance into the creek is so steep even most adults would struggle to clamber down.
Photographs taken by Daily Mail Australia at the base illustrate just how rocky and unstable the terrain is.
AJ was found sitting in a shallow, muddy creek at the base of what appeared to be a barely visible path, but the question remains as to how he made it down such a steep track safely.
Mr Cassar explained it was very possible that, even with hundreds of volunteers, little AJ avoided detection while in the bush.
He said search parties tended to stay in straight lines and follow a near perfect trajectory from point A to point B, whereas somebody who is lost intuitively does the opposite.
‘When we’re lost, we almost always walk at a slight curve to the right or left, therefore it’s easy to travel in directions that might be missed by search parties,’ Mr Cassar said.
He hoped to provide the family some further guidance as to whether AJ likely wandered off on his own or was abducted, which is what the family initially believed.
A relative who said he lived at the home with the Elfalaks jumped in to say the family was performing ‘their own investigation’.
‘We’d like to think the police are still investigating, but they’re not here are they,’ the man said.
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