According to a 2012 study, nearly half of all individuals with autism spectrum disorder attempt to wander away from safe, supervised places, with the potential for devastating consequences. The tragic case of autistic 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo is a prime example. Avonte wandered away from his New York City school and went missing in October 2013. Several months later, the young man’s remains were found at the waterfront near College Point in Queens.
Because of incidents such as Avonte’s, a new bill has been proposed by Senator Charles Schumer of New York, along with Senators Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, called Avonte’s Law. Avonte's Law Act of 2014 (2014) amended the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to reduce the risk of injury and death relating to the wandering characteristics of some individuals with autism and other disabilities and additionally safeguard the well-being of individuals with disabilities during interactions with law enforcement. Most notably, the bill makes tracking technology available to families as a means of finding people who have the tendency to wander off.
In this technological age, there are all kinds of GPS-equipped clothing, watches and other gadgets that give parents and caregivers a sense of safety for their children. For example, the Kidsport GPS tracking device, a sports band that goes around the child’s wrist, allows wanderers to be located at the touch of a button on a smartphone, iPad or computer using the device’s downloadable app. This durable, waterproof band contains the world’s smallest cell phone module with extremely low power consumption and the ability to track location as accurately as 3 meters (Kidsport GPS Tracking Band, n.d.). Unlike the technology that is worn around the wrist or ankle, Independence Day Clothing offers shirts and pants that help track down a child in the event he or she goes missing. Each garment has a soft pocket with a two-inch long, wireless GPS device (Beres, 2015).
The Kidsport GPS and Independence Day Clothing are just two of many efforts to help track children who wander away from the supervision of parents and caregivers. But what about tracking adults?
If an autistic adult wanders, law enforcement must not only ensure the safety of the missing person but also respect his or her dignity and civil liberties. Officers Laurie Reyes and Tara Wimmer coordinate the Project Lifesaver program for the Montgomery County, Maryland, police force. This program gives first responders the necessary tools to respond to wandering episodes involving children and adults with cognitive conditions (Salenetri, 2015).
Officer Reyes aids in the training of new recruits to deal with individuals with autism spectrum and related disorders, taking into consideration their unique needs. According to Officer Reyes, tracking devices can be useful for adults but should be a “last resort” because a GPS tracking device could convey a false sense of security. Sure, a tracking device may have saved some wanderers‘ lives, but they can easily be removed by the person who wears them. Furthermore, they would not necessarily be beneficial if the wearer fell into a neighbor’s pool or if wandered into traffic (Picciuto, 2015).
It is also crucial to be prepared for possible interactions with law enforcement. Be Safe The Movie is an educational tool for preparing individuals with autism and related disorders for future interaction with law enforcement officers. Using video modeling, the film depicts actors with autism interacting with real police officers. Throughout the film, viewers learn the skills to use when encountering law enforcement. Obeying the police, telling the officer(s) about one’s disability and learning how to call 911 are just some of the key skills portrayed. The creator of Be Safe The Movie is Emily Iland, MA, an award-winning AAPC author, advocate, researcher and leader in the autism field.
Individuals run away for various reasons, whether attempting to escape abuse, being lost or confused, or simply curious about the world around them. Regardless of the reason, their well-being is the top priority. It is important for parents and caregivers who have children with ASD to anticipate the possibility of their children wandering and possibly interacting with law enforcement. Whether it is a friendly hello, an arrest situation, or a 911 emergency, it is important to be prepared.
Avonte's Law Act of 2014. (2014, May 22). Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/senate-bill/2386
Beres, D. (2015, February 18). These high-tech shirts and pants help protect kids with autism. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/18/autism-gps-device_n_6705368.html
Kidsport GPS tracking band. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://preciseinnovation.com/kidsport-gps-tracking-band-for-kids.html
Picciuto, E. (2015, March 18). When your adult autistic son goes missing. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/18/when-your-adult-autistic-son-goes-missing.html
Salenetri, J. (2015, March 18). Project lifesaver receives public safety corporate vital link award from the Montgomery County, Maryland Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved from http://www.projectlifesaver.org/2015/03/18/project-lifesaver-receives-public-safety-corporate-vital-link-award-from-the-montgomery-county-maryland-chamber-of-commerce/
Study confirms: Autism wandering common & scary. (2012, October 8). Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/study-confirms-autism-wandering-common-scary