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For people with autism, safety issues must be addressed at home, at school, at work and in the community.
When someone with autism leaves a safe area, like school or work, without notice or permission, it’s known as an “elopement.” People with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) often wander or bolt from safe spaces and this can have tragic consequences.
The Daily Beast (3.18.15) recently wrote about elopement in connection with Brian Gewirtz, 20, a man from Brooklyn with autism, who has been missing for a month. His family is understandably worried about him.
Heightened awareness of the dangers of autistic elopement was initiated by the death of Avonte Oquendo. On October 4, 2013, Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism from Queens, wandered away from his Long Island City school. Video showed he ran out of the front door of his school while the security guard was looking the other way. His disappearance started a citywide search that ended in tragedy when his body was found three months later in the East River in Queens.
The greater understanding of elopement following the death of Oquendo inspired “Avonte’s Law.” Avonte’s Law requires that the federal government make grants to law enforcement agencies for finding people in case of elopements. The law also employs the assistance of GPS tracker devices given to the families of autistic children. This optional tracking technology would be available to families who request it. If Avonte’s family had access to a GPS tracker, they may have been able to locate him before he reached the river.
The Daily Beast quoted disability advocates in the weighing of both safety and the need to ensure civil rights for autistic individuals. The use of tracking technology has triggered civil liberties questions, especially when the GPS is employed with adults. As the Daily Beast explores in its article, autistic elopement cases bring up larger questions about what police and caregivers need to do to “ensure the safety and dignity” of a person who might or has eloped. Most importantly, law enforcement must ensure the safety of someone who has eloped. This includes respecting dignity and civil liberties
Senator Charles Schumer of New York, along with Senators Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, are the sponsors of Avonte’s Law. These lawmakers worked with advocates to balance concerns of civil liberties and safety, and the result is that the bill offers protections from rights violations. While the legislation does not specifically mention protection regarding civil liberties violations due to tracking devices, it does state that goals of the legislation include facilitating communication, identifying signs of abuse, and training law enforcement “to recognize and respond to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities” in an effective and positive manner.
Other suggestions for handling elopement mentioned in the article, include sending letters to neighbors to let them know that the elopement of an individual is a possibility, ensuring officers can distinguish autism and can communicate effectively, ensuring people with autism get comfortable with law enforcement, giving caregivers a script for when they call 911, and encouraging caregivers to call 911 as quickly as possible when they realize someone is missing.
There is no one-size-fits all answer, but being aware and taking every precaution available can prevent further tragedies from happening.
David Perecman, the attorney for the family of Avonte, helped the teen’s grieving relatives following the discovery of his death.