The recent drowning death of Jayden Morrison over the Christmas holiday is just one of many fatal wandering incidents involving autistic children during 2014. Jayden was visiting his grandmother’s house for Christmas. His grandmother turned her back for just a moment when Jayden slipped out the front door. After an extensive search, the little boy was found dead in a nearby pond.
It is easy to cast blame on inattentive or distracted parents or caregivers, however, many of the cases involved middle of the night wanderings or a split-second distraction and the child was gone. In fact, according to research cited by the National Autism Association, roughly 49 percent of children diagnosed with autism bolt or elope, and this rate is nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings, discounting the notion that bad parenting or neglect was to blame.
Autism affects 1 in 68 children, and can vary in its expression. Some autistic children are able to communicate and are aware of their surroundings, while others are verbally challenged and become lost easily. Any child can be overwhelmed when becoming lost, but autistic children face a greater danger, as most have hyper-sensitivity to light and sound. They may run from law enforcement officers out of fear.
Losing a child is every parent’s nightmare. The act of elopement, or wandering, is common with children on the autism spectrum. As noted in the 2012 study by the Interactive Autism Network, funded in part by Autism Speaks, a non-profit that serves the autistic community, 49 percent of the more than 1,200 respondents reported that their loved one with autism had wandered from safety, and more than half of those children had gone missing as a result.
Tragically, wandering-related injuries and deaths happen with alarming frequency among individuals with autism. In response to this need, technology is now available to help parents keep their autistic children safe.
On January 12, Autism Speaks generously awarded a $98,000 grant to Project Lifesaver International. The money will directly benefit families of autistic children who are at risk for wandering. The grant will provide wearable tracking technology that will enable first responders to clue into the child’s location, and includes training for families and first responders.
Presently, Project Lifesaver serves approximately 18,000 individuals with autism. Each enrolled member is issued a personal transmitter that carries a unique locating signal. If the person is reported missing, the caregiver contacts their local Project Lifesaver agency and an emergency team familiar with the program responds to the call.
As reported on Autism Speaks website, “Wandering-related incidents and tragedies are far too common among people with autism. Autism Speaks is committed to keeping those in the autism community safe from harm. We know based on the program’s tremendous work to date that this funding for Project Lifesaver will have a significant impact by educating first responders and families and providing individuals with autism with locating devices.”
The Project Lifesaver program is more than wearable locating technology. First responders who participate in the project are given specialized training that allows them to respond to calls concerning children and adults with autism. The program trains first responders to understand the behaviors of individuals with autism so they are able to interact with this growing population in an effective and successful manner.
For families living with autism, a multi-faceted approach to safety is essential, beginning with prevention. Locks placed in hard to reach spots on doors that lead outside, motion sensing lights in the hallway, and having a safety plan are some examples of prevention. In the event that a person with autism wanders, locating devices like those provided by Project Lifesaver can make all the difference in the outcome. Project Lifesaver includes instruction for families and caregivers on the maintenance of their child’s locating technology and reporting protocol when their loved one is missing.
The grant provided to Project Lifesaver by Autism Speaks will add another level of defense toward preventing and responding to wandering incidents. Project Lifesaver will be able increase their enrollment and protect more people with autism. The Autism Speaks grant will enable Project Lifesaver to provide over 900 people with autism with access to locating technology and expand coverage areas by establishing new Project Lifesavers agencies in additional communities.
On January 13, a 7-year-old boy in St. George, Utah, was granted the first Project Lifesaver transmitter, the result of the grant from Autism Speaks. ABC 4 Utah reports that the young boy, who has autism, had eloped from his family home several times.
“I would be working in the kitchen and all of a sudden, he’s gone and he’s escaped from church or from school,” his mother, Bonnie Webb said.
She had tried adding extra locks to doors, but she realized she needed to find a solution when her son put his life in danger.
“I remember one time, he had gone and run towards a cliff side and I actually didn’t catch up until he had almost gone to the edge. He had run through barbed wire and was all cut up and bleeding and I couldn’t get to him,” she said.
Autism Speaks donated $5,000 directly to the St. George Police Department, enough to purchase 10 transmitters. The Police Department hopes to fund additional transmitters to families through donations.
“A child with autism has it for life and families can’t afford it with the medical bills. The transmitter alone is $250.00. And with one year supply of battery and bands, is $300.00 so we’re asking for donations for more transmitters,” St. George Police Officer Lewis explained.
Project Lifesaver’s program works. In one instance, the Project Lifesaver’s team was dispatched to find an 11-year-old boy with autism who had wandered from home. The team followed the boy’s signal, and they were able to safely locate him within minutes.
Officer Lewis said there has been more than 3,000 recoveries because of the program, and search time is significantly reduced from eight hours to 30 minutes.
All inquiries concerning enrollment in Project Lifesaver or agencies wishing to be considered for the grant should be directed to Project Lifesaver International.
Chief Tommy Carter
Inquiries for the “PAL” Protect and Locate devices should contact:
PAL Program Coordinator
If you are seeking additional safety information or resources, the Autism Response Team is happy to help! Call us at 888-288-4762 (en Español 888-772-9050) or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!