Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Tracking devices for children with autism and other special needs
The front door to our house opened, and Max walked in. "Max, what were you doing outside?" I asked. He'd decided to stand on the porch and wait for some friends to show up; I hadn't heard him leave. Our house has an alarm, and I'd never bothered to put on the alert that tinkles whenever a door is opened. After that, I realized I should.
Max does not wander often, but he has been known to bolt when the mood hits. We had one heart-stopping moment at the airport last year when Dave and Max went to the bathroom while Sabrina and I hung in the sitting area at the gate. All of a sudden, I happened to see Max walking down a corridor alone. Dave had turned around for a few secs and just like that, Max was gone.
It's when I first got a sense of what some parents of kids with autism have to contend with. The tragic story of Avonte Oquendo—a 14-year-old with autism who wandered away from his Long Island, New York school in October and whose remains were found last month—fully brought the issue to the public eye. And now, the U.S. Justice Department will pay for voluntary-use GPS tracking devices for children through the Byrne grant program. The trackers cost about $85 each, and will be distributed via programs local police departments set up.
Children with autism are at particularly high risk for wandering, as many parents well know. It's estimated that half of children with autism are prone to wandering, according to a 2012 article in the journal Pediatrics. The majority of fatalities—60 since 2008—have involved drowning.
The press has largely referenced the Justice Dept. program as being for children with autism, though it is also for kids with other conditions and developmental disorders that put them at risk for flight. Devices can be worn on the wrist, clipped onto shoelaces or belt loops, kept in a wallet or sewn into clothing.
As is often the case, it took a tragedy for change to come about. Avonte's death was in vain, no matter what. But the bill created in his name surely save children's lives.
It seems like it will take some time before the tracker programs are in place. Police departments will be in charge of distributing the trackers, via schools and organizations who will have to apply for them. Make sure your child's school is aware of this.