THE BLOG

Opening Our Hearts to Special Needs Children

02/14/2014 12:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2014

Valentine's Day is a time for romantic love, couples and even families who often celebrate with their children. This year, the pink and red hearts in shop windows and on shelves are reminding me of a mother's heart, and I'm thinking of the emptiness that must be in Avonte Oquendo's mother's heart, my own heart missing a beat when I think of my autistic son and how much he shares with Avonte. Children born with a disability stretch and tug and dip into our hearts in so many ways. At the very moment we don't feel we're up to their special challenges, our hearts enlarge in ways we never thought possible to reveal our deepest purpose in life.

I closely followed the search for 14-year-old Avonte after he walked out of his school and went missing in October. I was heartbroken and shocked when his remains were found. Parents all over the nation are mourning his loss, and it reminds us of the many other children who have lost their lives to tragic situations.

This is the time to come together and honor these innocent children by finding a solution. This is the time to focus on making our schools and neighborhoods safer places for all of our country's children with special needs, all of the special, vulnerable hearts who depend on us for a safe and happy life.

There are many ways to do this, including supporting Avonte's law, which would fund a program to provide electronic tracking devices that could be worn by children with autism, similar to those worn by people with Alzheimer's disease. Parents would have free access to the program. This legislation and these devices are an encouraging first step, and part of a bigger solution.

With one in 50 school-aged children diagnosed with autism, school districts must intensify training and other safeguards to protect kids like Avonte. While tracking devices will help, we also need more resources for early identification and intervention for kids of color with autism, who are diagnosed two to four years later than their white peers. Crucial to better identification and awareness, as well as to a safe and nurturing environment, is better training for teachers and school staff. Schools must also ensure that nonverbal students have argumentative communication devices, one-on-one aides and other supports so they're not vulnerable or subject to harm.

The Avonte tragedy has started a conversation that will hopefully continue, hopefully keep things moving to bring about more action and awareness. Every parent should have the confidence of knowing their child is safe when away from home and family. When you are the parent of a special needs child like Avonte, who was nonverbal, that confidence becomes even more crucial.

As a national advocate for children with autism, I'm asking you to please use this tragedy as an impetus for change and improvement. Get behind Avonte's law and support increased training and awareness in our schools and communities.

Most immediately, schools in America, especially those that care for special needs children, should closely review their protocols and procedures. I urge every school to ensure they are able and ready to protect each student. We have to make sure that what happened to Avonte never happens again. Support this new law in his honor, and begin to put in place the other safeguards needed to protect our children. Because on Valentine's Day and every day, they all hold a special place in our hearts.