The tragic case of Avonte Oquendo prompted Justice Department officials this week to expand a program to help parents obtain tracking devices for children with autism. Avonte, a 14-year-old with autism, was found dead three-months after running away from school. Avonte, who did not speak, was at school in Queens, NY when he ran off on October 4, 2013 at about 12:30 p.m.
The announcement Wednesday means that federal grant funds,which already cover tracking devices for adults with Alzheimers, will also apply to children with autism. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had requested the funds, said the devices were available immediately for parents who wanted them. Avonte’s Law, which Schumer proposed in November, would authorize federal funds for the purchase of tracking devices as well as training in their use. Each device costs about $85, plus a few dollars in monthly fees, the Senator said, adding that hundreds of families with autistic children already have used privately funded tracking devices.
A 2012 study by the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore found that children between the ages of 4 and 7 with autism were four times more likely to wander away than children of the same age without autism. The study, based on a survey of parents of children with autism, found that 49% of the children had tried to run off at least once after they reached age 4. This same study indicated 56% of parents stating eloping is one of the most stressful behaviors they encounter while caring for their children with autism.
While tracking devices are important, educating and training staff who work with individuals with autism is imperative. Avonte’s wandering behavior is called eloping, which means he left a safe location without permission. Eloping is a potentially dangerous behavior that has led to 22 deaths in just 20 months between 2009 and 2011, according to the National Autism Association.
Some children with autism do not understand the spoken word, therefore may not respond to their name when called. Some children cannot speak without support, so they may not be able to ask for what they want and need without augmentative communication, such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) or using sign language . If a child elopes without support, or in the case of using sign language, encounters someone who does not speak the language, it could be incredibly difficult or impossible for the child to communicate any personal information, which would ultimately lead to his/her safe return home.
Many children with autism do not have an age-appropriate understanding or awareness of safety procedures, such as checking for cars before crossing the street, walking within a cross walk or avoiding strangers.
All of these stress the importance of addressing the issues surrounding elopement behaviors. All involved in the care and education of children with autism must be specifically trained in keeping children safe as a means to prevent further tragedy.
Below are some links with helpful information.
The Big Red Safety Box is a resource created by the National Autism Association for The AWAARE (Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education) Collaboration.