On January 26, 2014, the Associated Press published an article about a newly-proposed piece of legislation called Avonte's Law. The proposed law is being introduced by New York senator Chuck Schumer and is named for Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism who wandered away from his Queens school in October. His body was recovered from the East River earlier this month, although the cause of Avonte's death is still under investigation. Schumer's proposed legislation is that the federal government would pay $10 million for GPS tracking devices to be used by children with autism, worn on the wrist or in clothing. Each device would cost about $85.
According to a 2012 study in Pediatrics, about half of all children with autism "wander" without adult supervision and, since 2008, this dangerous activity attributed for at least 60 related deaths. (The AP article states that 90 percent of such deaths are due to drowning.) Having worked in the field of supporting individuals with autism and other differences since 1987, I am familiar with wandering or what is clinically called "eloping."
Not intended to have any romantic connotations, eloping what is known in layperson terms as "bolting." Most parents of kids with autism are familiar with the drill: You turn your back for a split second and your child has seemingly vanished, having been irresistibly drawn to a sight or sound somewhere outside the immediate environment. Eloping is most often driven by an insatiable curiosity, although under emotion duress, individuals with autism are likely to either retreat within themselves or flee the immediate environment. The focus in recent times tends to be on small children and teens with autism, but I have also known adults with autism who have eloped as well. The recommendations we applied then still hold up today: Install alarms on doors and windows and keep those persons known to elope under watchful supervision.
Although the AP article states that roughly half of all children with autism are known to wander, I wonder how that compares to those children without autism who are also known to wander. A GPS tracking device that can be worn on the wrist or in clothing might make good sense for any number of children of a certain age range. Perhaps instead of a law to provide for GPS tracking devices at taxpayer expense and particular to kids with autism, it may make good sense that a child-friendly GPS device could be marketed affordably or significantly discounted for any number of concerned parents of children with or without autism.
Of course, it is equally important to instruct and enforce rules about the physical boundaries of the environments in which each child with autism finds himself. I have found that this kind of instruction is often disregarded because parents and caregivers have been led to believe their child "wouldn't understand." Baloney. Any kid who is smart enough to figure out how to run away without tripping an alarm system and remaining undetected until they are discovered at the other end of the street mere moments later is smart enough for parents and caregivers to lay down the law in no uncertain terms. No child is ever too young to be informed about such expectations, and parents and caregivers should consistently apply fair and reasonable discipline when the rules are broken.
The operative word in the preceding recommendation is consistently. Most people with autism are visual thinkers and learners. This means that, like me, they think in pictures and movies -- constant streams of visual imagery. Verbal communication dissipates into thin air if it is not backed up with pictures and words for the sake of retention. Household rules should be created by which every family member is held accountable. These should be clearly posted and referred to often. Videos may exist, or can be created, to visually reinforce the rules and dangers about running away unattended. This is not to frighten but to inform.
An explanation of rules should also be accompanied by fair and reasonable consequences for breaking the rules. I have heard from parents who have said their child with autism doesn't understand discipline. Take away their iPad for a certain amount of time as punishment for breaking the rules; I guarantee they'll understand discipline very quickly! Empower each individual with a measure of personal responsibility for themselves as well as for being a contributor to their household. There will always be individuals with autism who will run away for reasons known only to them, but instilling a foundation of parental expectation in a manner they will best process and retain may be a solid preventative measure.