A frantic search in St. Cloud for a missing 6-year-old boy ended Friday morning after a body was pulled from the Mississippi River a few blocks from where the boy was last seen.

The medical examiner will identify the body after an autopsy, but St. Cloud police ended the search and said they feel confident they've found Hamza Elmi.

"It's a sad day," said St. Cloud Police Cmdr. Jeff Oxton. "Our hearts go out to the family."

The boy, who reportedly had autism and was nonverbal, had a history of walking off on his own, Oxton said. The family called police around 9 p.m. Thursday to report him missing. He was last seen on 8th Avenue N., about three blocks from the river.

The search expanded to a 160-block area of the city and included an automated phone call around 1 a.m. Friday to every home within the search area, notifying the public that a boy was missing. The St. Cloud Fire Department joined the search as well.

A Stearns County Sheriff's Office dive team found the body and a scooter in the water about 10:30 a.m. Friday.

Children with autism frequently wander away from their families or safe places, said Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota.

It's not that the children feel a need to escape, but they want to explore and don't realize they've wandered off or that people will worry, he said. Water can be an especially hazardous attraction for children with autism because of the positive sensory experience it offers them, from the weightlessness to the sounds and smell of it.

"They love a bath in the evening," he said. "When they see water elsewhere, they're drawn to it because they think it's going to be a positive experience. So they wander in without any fear of danger."

Drowning is the leading cause of death for young children with autism, he said.

The Legislature this year appropriated $80,000 for tracking devices that users wear like a bracelet to help people who have medical conditions that might cause them to wander away from their home, like Alzheimer's or autism. The tracking devices have been distributed to local law enforcement agencies through the Project Lifesaver program.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747