by Amy Joyce
Laughlin Children's Center Board of Directors member
“An autistic teenager has wandered away....” is the headline in the news more and more often these days. As a parent of an autistic teen, my breath catches each time I hear those words. That fear ranks among the top we parents share for our children on the autism spectrum. Verbal, non-verbal, high-functioning or low-functioning, every child with ASD is at risk for this behavior.
When the story broke that the remains of a nonverbal, severely autistic boy named Avonte Oquendo washed up by a New York City river last week after wandering away from his school last October, the entire city mourned with the parents. Not because they knew the family or the boy, but because they felt the loss as their own. They had searched for him, checking the subway trains and yards, knowing he loved trains. They had scoured faces similar to his, wondering if he was the boy who couldn't speak but was lost. They had helped with bloodhounds, and police and other rescue teams to call his name, look for signs of him or hope he was huddled somewhere.
But it's all counter-intuitive to a family who has an child with autism. None of those helping had malicious intent, but we knew their efforts were in vain. We knew because one of the first things we teach our kids is Stranger Danger. We knew there was no way a severely autistic boy would come to someone he didn't know, no way he would come out when his name was called, and no way he would run toward a barking dog who picked up his scent. We know this because we see every day how our kids hide from loud noises, cover their ears when dogs bark, shield their faces when bright lights shine and become too wrapped up in their own thoughts to hear their names.
How can you find a person who's too afraid to be found? Recently an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette highlighted an effort by the Allegheny County District attorney to "produce a DVD titled Encountering People with Autism for police and other first responders who may come in contact with those diagnosed with some form of the mysterious brain disorder, characterized by social difficulties, communication problems and repetitive behaviors and fixed interests.” More than 100 police departments in the county will receive a copy in March to help train officers and make them aware of particular behaviors exhibited by persons with autistic disorders. Read more: http://bit.ly/1e29zro
New York Senator Chuck Schumer proposed a bill in November that would expand an existing voluntary program for people suffering with Alzheimer's to include autistic children. If passed, parents and other caregivers would be able to outfit autistic children with tracking devices, on their wrist, ankle, or anywhere they would tolerate such a device. While we can't always control the actions of those with these types of cognitive impairments, whether it be autism, Alzheimer's, or dementia, we can take steps to help ensure their safety. It's time for this technology to help save lives. My son loves the car GPS, I can only hope he'd love his own GPS even more.