By Megan Kelly
On October 4th, 2013, a fourteen year old boy named Avonte Oquendo went missing from the school he attended in Queens, New York. The footage from the schools security cameras showed Avonte running down a hallway, and then out a door that had been left open, and unlocked. There was no one there to stop him. No teachers, or adults present, and no security guards posted near the door.
Aponte’s family and friends, together with the police, and a score of volunteers, launched a massive search campaign. Avonte’s family was frantic to find him. Avonte was not only young, but also a non-speaking autistic. No one could understand how the boy had been able to just wander out of his school, especially when the school knew about the special needs that he required. Tragically, on January 16th, after more than three months of searching, Avonte’s remains were finally found in the New York East River. His exact cause of death is still under investigation.
This terrible event prompted New York Senator Chuck Schumer to propose a new grant program aimed specifically at children with autism. About ten million dollars would be allocated for creation of the program, which would fund tracking devices, and the technology needed to run them. The devices would be made available to families, and caregivers with autistic children, who were interested in using them. This new program has not yet been approved. However, officials of the Justice Department have currently made additions to an existing program, called the Byrne Program. The Byrne Program is in place to provide grant money to law enforcement officials for use for such things as crime prevention programs, officer training, and equipment for emergency vehicles. It also provides, and pays for, tracking devices for seniors with Alzheimer’s. Since Avontes death, the Byrne Program grants can now also be used to purchase, and distribute tracking devices to families, and care givers of children with autism.
The tracking devices are available on a completely voluntary basis, no one will be forced to use them for their children, but there is now funding available to purchase these devices for children if the parents, and caregivers feel the device would be beneficial, and help keep the child safe. The devices can be worn a variety of different ways, depending on what works best for the individual child. They can be worn as bracelets, anklets, attached to shoes and belt loops, or sewn into clothing. If the child wearing the device wanders away, or is missing, the caregiver can call the monitoring company of the device. The company can track the child using GPS (Global Positioning System), and also dispatch emergency responders to the child’s location.
In order to apply for a tracking device, parents or caregivers must contact their local law enforcement agency. Each individual department will be responsible for setting up, and determining how, and to whom the devices are distributed. Hopefully organizations, and schools will begin working with their local law departments in the near future, in order to start, and set up programs with them, which would help to allow easier access, and more information to those that are interested in the devices.
There are obvious benefits to tracking devices being used on autistic children, mainly the benefit of providing extra safety for the child, and possibly even avoiding life threatening situations. In a 2012 study published in the journal “Pediatrics”, 49% of the autistic children in the study had wandered, bolted, or gone missing, at least once after age four compared to 13% of Neuro-typical children in the study. Among the children with autism in the study that had wandered or gotten lost, 65% had “close calls” with traffic incidents, and 24% had been in danger of drowning.
Despite the tracking devices benefits, there are also some concerns, and opposition being voiced. Some individuals are concerned that the money would be better spent on different things that would be a benefit to all autistic children, not just the ones that might be helped by tracking devices. Some parents say that their child would simply yank the device off, no matter how it happened to be attached to them, thus totally eliminating any benefit of such a device. Others voice concerns about sensory issues, where the child might not want the device to be anywhere on their body, or even attached to their clothing. And some are worried about their child’s, and families’ privacy, concerned because the government will be the ones that are monitoring the devices.
Ashley Parker, a spokeswoman from the Autism Society in Maryland said that for those concerned about privacy concerning the government, tracking devices can also be obtained through private companies, and some non-profit organizations.
“We in general support anything that prevents the dangers that come with wandering.”
But she also stated that tracking devices alone are not enough.
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“Police and others called upon to help find a person with autism who has wandered away need training so that if they encounter the person, they know how to approach him or her. That is especially true when the missing person does not speak.”
She also gave voice to concerns that a child that had gone missing, or tried to run away, might have legitimate reasons for doing so, such as abuse, and wanting to get away from their caregiver.
“I think it’s a great idea for a lot of kids,” Parker said of tracking devices. “But there is always that concern that it could be used in a negative sense.”
The story of Avonte Oquendo is tragic, but the positive aspect is that there are now additional safety measures being made available for autistic children. Though tracking devices may not be beneficial for all children with autism, the option to obtain them for those children who will be helped, is now becoming much more readily available than in the past. Overall, it seems that a parents, or caregivers decision to use a tracking device with their child may be a deeply personal one. There are many opinions, and things to consider, as well as the most important thing of all, which is every child’s unique and individual needs.
For law enforcement looking for more information on autism we recommend http://www.autismriskmanagement.com.