On average, about half of the children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are wanderers. Some frequently walk away from their parents when out shopping together. A few only leave safe environments on rare occasions. Monday an 11-year-old boy in Seattle, who had earned the privilege of staying home alone while his mother runs out to do quick errands in the neighborhood, was seen outside his home, shoes untied, looking for her. As she walked up the hill toward him, he ran to her. She had been gone only 15 minutes. His reason for leaving the house was that he wanted permission to use the mouse from her laptop.
The urgency the boy felt overshadowed any reasoning that would tell a neuro-typical child to wait until his mother got home or, more typically, just use the mouse without permission. The mother, of course, was frantic, particularly when her son told her that he had talked to a stranger. The entire event has caused the mother to question her decision to leave him alone.
Dozens of young people on the spectrum have lost their lives after wandering away from either home, school or other safe places. Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy from Queens, was found three months after his disappearance October 4, 2013. His body parts were recovered from a river. On surveillance videotape, Oquendo is seen running away from his school. Not only were three teachers unable to keep track of him, but a security guard saw him leaving and did not attempt to detain him. The boy’s parents have said that they plan to sue the city in the wrongful death of their son.
Unlike the Seattle boy, Oquendo had a reputation for wandering during transitions at school. The severely autistic teen left the school grounds just after lunch. Jaden Dremsa, like the boy in Seattle, had earned certain privileges. Earlier this month, the 15-year-old’s body was found nine days after going out for a walk. State officials in Maine said Dremsa, diagnosed with mild autism, hit his head and drowned in a lake near his home.
The incidents are all-too-common and too often heartbreaking. Most of the time, no harm comes to the child. Unfortunately, when something does go wrong, it ends in tragedy. The numerous events that have ended badly have inspired Senator Chuck Schumer to help families with ASD members obtain GPS tracking devices.
Due to the senator’s diligence, the federal government has agreed to foot the bill for any families who would like to have GPS tracking abilities for an autistic child. Schumer has promised to work on securing funding on a long-term basis.
While some families will gladly accept the offer and use such a device for their loved ones, others will likely balk at the idea for various reasons. Many of these kids who go missing are found in rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. GPS devices are not waterproof. They are also not terribly reliable in unpopulated regions, like rural areas and the woods. Some experts have also pointed out that for some individuals who are on the high-functioning end of the spectrum, like Dremsa, having a GPS device strapped to them would be stigmatizing.
Arguments are being made for accepting what GPS devices can accomplish in these potentially tragic situations, while also making efforts toward improving lines of communication between those who care for young people with Autism. Did the security guard at Oquendo’s school know that the boy had a propensity for wandering? If he did not, perhaps that one piece of information could have created a different outcome.
In the state of Maine, the autism community is blazing a trail to help bring a greater sense of education, collaboration and vital information sharing in regard to wandering. Matt Brown, a federal probation officer and father of an autistic boy, is working with the Autism Society of Maine to train thousands of law enforcement officers. They are learning how to look for people with ASD, and how to approach them when located. Parents are encouraged to fill out a form that has very specific information about their child. Brown anticipates the form will soon be put into an electronic format in order to share the data more easily and with a greater number of agencies.
The boy in Seattle was lucky, and his mother told him so. The problem with many ASD children is, as soon as another opportunity arises for wandering, the lecture from a parent is soon forgotten. It is often said that parents cannot protect their children from the world. With neuro-typical children, this is not only true, but healthful. Unfortunately, for parents of children with Autism who like to wander, they must protect their child if they want to see them grow up.
Opinion By Stacy Lamy