As the number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder has soared, a nationwide effort is gaining ground to spread the word about their likelihood to wander off from a safe environment.
Of the more than 500,000 children on the autism spectrum, about half are prone to wandering. This behavior has been linked to the deaths of dozens of children with autism since 2008. One such tragedy — involving a New York City boy found dead in a river three months after he walked away from school — has spurred the U.S. government to fund GPS tracking devices for children with autism spectrum disorders.
But while the effort to expand families’ access to tracking devices is a worthy one, it shouldn’t overshadow the lower-tech strategies for preventing and responding to wandering by children with autism: collaboration, education and sharing information. Though safety can be enhanced by technology, it shouldn’t depend on technology.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department agreed to cover the cost of GPS tracking devices for children with autism. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who initiated the push for federal coverage, said he’ll continue to press for legislation to secure long-term funding for the devices.
GPS might have saved Avonte Oquendo, a Queens boy who had a severe form of autism and couldn’t speak. It’s also highly probable, though, that stricter school safety protocols would have helped. Videotaped surveillance footage indicates that a security officer saw the 14-year-old leave the building last Oct. 4 but didn’t stop him.
And it’s far from clear whether tracking devices would have made a difference for Jaden Dremsa. The Waterboro 15-year-old’s body was recovered May 17, nine days after he told his family he was going for a walk; state officials concluded that he drowned in a nearby lake after hitting his head.
But GPS units aren’t waterproof, and they’re not always reliable in wooded or rural areas. What’s more, some experts have said, wearing a tracking device might seem unnecessary and stigmatizing to young people like Jaden, who had a high-functioning form of autism.
Maine’s autism community is pioneering efforts to educate families and the larger community about wandering. Through the Autism Society of Maine, federal probation officer Matt Brown — a parent of a boy with autism — has trained several thousand Maine law enforcement officials about how to search for people with the disorder. Brown also encourages parents to give emergency responders a form with specific information, such as how their child might behave when approached. He’s hoping that this data can be put into electronic form so it can be more easily shared in the field by officers from different agencies.
Making GPS units accessible to more families can’t hurt, but there are other ways to ensure the safety of children with autism, and the advent of electronic tracking devices should encourage more — not less — creative thinking about this issue that’s so urgent to so many families.