November 4, 2013 - Washington, DC - U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today called for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to create and fund a program to provide voluntary tracking devices for children who have Autism or other developmental disorders in which “bolting” from parents or caregivers is common; the voluntary program would only be for parents who choose to use the devices. This month Avonte Oquendo bolted from a school in Queens and, four weeks later, he is still missing. The federal government already has a program to track seniors with Alzheimer’s, and Schumer said that this program should be extended to include children with Autism and other disorders. Schumer stressed that the program would be totally voluntary for parents, would be run by the police department or other local law enforcement, and would also provide funding for training of individuals on how to use and maintain these devices. Parents, schools, and law enforcement would all have to choose to participate. Massachusetts already has a successful program to help locate children with Autism that wander from their safe place.
“The sights and sounds of cities, schools and other busy places can be over-stimulating and distracting for children and teens with Autism, often leading to wandering as a way to escape. Voluntary tracking devices will help our teachers and parents in the event that the child runs away and, God forbid, goes missing,” said Schumer. “DOJ already funds these devices for individuals with Alzheimer’s and they should do the same for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Funding this program will help put school systems and parents of children and teens with Autism at ease knowing where their children are."
“Bolting,” running, or wandering is common among children and teens with Autism. This is technically called elopement, which is the tendency to leave a safe place. Children and teens who exhibit this behavior tend to be at the severe end of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).
Children and teens with Autism tend to run for various reasons, including avoiding a demand or situation, sensory overload, or accessing something or someone that they care about. These individuals often have a significant lack of impulse control and may also lack significant safety awareness. An everyday environment for a typical developing child may create anxiety and be intolerable for a child or teen with Autism; this may lead to running or wandering.
Tracking technology includes personal locating devices that can prevent tragedy when individuals wander from school or home, and are lost. Tracking devices can be worn as non-tampering wristwatches, anklets, or clipped onto belt loops or onto shoelaces. When users of the device are missing, the caregiver/ school system notifies the device company and a trained emergency team responds to the area. Most who wander are found within a few miles from home. Recovery time for Project Lifesaver users, a maker of one of the devices, average 30 minutes which is 95 percent less time than it takes to find those without these tracking devices. Schumer noted that these devices should be used in conjunction with other educational and behavior supports.
Schumer today called on the Department of Justice to award funds to local law enforcement agencies or qualified organizations that want to provide tracking devices for children with Autism. The Department of Justice has awarded competitive grants to organizations that assist in locating individuals that have Alzheimer’s disease and are missing. Schumer today asked that DOJ create and fund similar programs for children with Autism, which could establish or expand community partnerships with local law enforcement to improve and assist in efforts to locate missing persons, and to educate law enforcement and other public safety partners in the most effective protocols for working with individuals with Autism and other developmental disorders. Schumer noted that these devices could be life-saving, and an important resource for parents who want them.
According to a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network and AWAARE, 49 percent of children and teens with Autism attempt to run, or wander. Of those who attempted to run, 53 percent of the children were missing long enough to cause serious concern.
According to AWAARE and the National Autism Association, of these children, 74 percent run or wander from their own home or from someone else’s home, 40 percent run or wander from stores and 29 percent run or wander from schools. Close calls with traffic injuries were reported for 65 percent of the missing children and close calls with drowning were reported for 24 percent of the missing children.
Running and wandering in children and teens with Autism takes an enormous toll on families and caregivers. 56 percent of parents reported running as one of the most stressful behaviors they have had to cope with as caregivers of a child with Autism. 50 percent of parents reported receiving little guidance on preventing or addressing this common behavior.
Avonte Oquendo went missing on October 4, 2013 when he ran away from his Long Island City school. The fourteen year old is diagnosed with Autism and is non-verbal.
A copy of Schumer’s letter is below:
Dear Attorney General Holder,
Thank you for your tireless efforts to assist local law enforcement and to ensure the safety of our citizens. As you may have heard, early last month a young child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) named Avonte Oquendo vanished from his Long Island City school in my home state of New York. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon among children with ASD; according to a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network, children with autism are four times more likely to wander than non-autistic children. In the wake of this terrible incident, and the many similar occurrences across the nation, we must do all that is necessary to ensure the safety of our children.
Technology has made it easier in recent years to help us reach this goal. Some parents have chosen to have their children with ASD use small wearable tracking devices, that aid trained emergency responders or law enforcement to locate a missing individual. According to Project Lifesaver, a program which advocates for the use of tracking technology in the case of wandering, the use of such devices reduces the amount of time and resources required to locate an individual that has wandered by approximately 95%. It has come to my attention that the Department of Justice has awarded grants in the past to organizations that assist with missing or disappeared individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. I would ask that the Department of Justice also look into awarding these types of funds to local law enforcement agencies or organizations if the parents of children with ASD decide that they would like to use these individual tracking devices and/or consult with trained specialists like those at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children so that they are better equipped to handle scenarios that involve missing children with ASD.
As a country and a community we must do everything possible to keep all children safe and it is essential that we pay even more attention to those with special needs. Again, I applaud the Department’s efforts to ensure the safety of our nation’s citizens, especially those with special needs such as ASD.
Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator