Inspired by the events surrounding Avonte Oquendo’s death, United States Senator Charles Schumer has proposed federal legislation to fund a program that tracks autistic children who have a habit of running away from parents and caregivers. “Avonte’s Law,” introduced to the Senate in January 2014, was influenced by the tragic death of Avonte, a 14-year-old nonverbal autistic boy who went missing in October 2013 after running away from his New York City school. Avonte’s remains were found three months later.
How Will Avonte’s Law Help Children?
Senator Schumer and autism advocates believe that if this bill becomes law, it could help to prevent similar tragedies. The tracking program, which would be voluntary, is modeled after a federal program that tracks people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other developmental disorders who are prone to “bolting” will be eligible for the program.
How Does the Tracking System Work?
The tracking devices can be worn as watches or anklets. The technology can also be attached to belt loops or shoelaces. The transmitter allows a caretaker to contact the manufacturer when a child goes missing; the manufacturer then contacts first responders.
Senator Schumer’s office explained that Alzheimer’s patients with the technology are usually found shortly after the alarm sounds. One manufacturer reported that, on average, patients are located within 30 minutes. This effective system could make all the difference in protecting children with ASD.
Avonte Oquendo’s Legacy
In a statement, Senator Schumer said:
“The tragic end to the search for Avonte Oquendo clearly demonstrates that we need to do more to protect children with autism who are at risk of running away. Thousands of families face the awful reality each and every day that their child with autism may run away. Making voluntary tracking devices available will help put parents at ease, and most importantly, help prevent future tragedies like Avonte’s. By expanding the innovative program we currently have in place for at-risk Alzheimer’s patients, we will help thousands of families avoid what Avonte’s family just experienced.”
Under Schumer’s bill, the U.S. Department of Justice would create $10 million in grants available to local law enforcement, schools and nonprofit organizations. Tracking devices would be provided to families who make requests.
Liz Feld, president of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, noted that Avonte’s case was closely followed around the country:
“The incidence of wandering has reached frightening levels and individuals with autism are especially vulnerable. We need to raise awareness and increase education so that tragedies like this never happen again.”
David Perecman, the attorney for the Oquendo family, said that while the bill won’t bring Avonte back, the legislation is a fitting way to honor the 14-year-old child:
“There is no medicine to relieve the pain from the loss of a child. However, Avonte’s law will make sure that this grave loss and the pain it has wrought will not be vain.”
Protecting Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Running away is a common trait among children with autism and autism spectrum disorders. Some of the reasons for this behavior include avoiding a demand or situation, sensory overload, or a desire to access someone or something that the child cares about. Children who run away usually lack impulse control and are unaware of the safety implications of their behavior.
The Interactive Autism Network and AAWARE estimate that 49% of autistic teens run away or wander off. Of that 49%, 53% run away for enough time to constitute a serious concern. About 29% wander away from school, 40% wander off from stores, and 79% flee their homes.
More than half of parents of autistic children who run away say the behavior is one of the most stressful things they have to cope with, while half said they receive little or no guidance about how to handle an autistic child who wanders off.
How You Can Help
The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C. is among many individuals and organizations standing in support of this important bill. There are a many ways you can lend your support to Avonte’s Law. You can start by contacting your United States senator and congressman. You can contact autism advocacy organizations such as Autism Speaks and the Autism Society.
You can also sign the petition for Avonte's Law! This legislation will help students and families of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Help us fight for change and increase the visibility of this bill to the lawmakers in Congress by signing the petition here.
Stand with us in protecting vulnerable members of our community!