Culture / Healthcare / Politics

Tracking Technology to Benefit Children with Autism

The tracking technology that has been successfully used to locate missing individuals with Alzheimer’s can now offer similar success to individuals on the autistic spectrum.

On January 29th 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder from the Department of Justice testified at a Hearing with the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Part of his testimony included the expansion of a grant program- the Law Enforcement and Law Enforcement and Missing Persons with Alzheimer’s Disease Competitive Grant– currently available through the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Justice Programs (OJP), and Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). This grant has previously been limited to funding services for individuals with Alzheimer’s and similar cognitive disorders. Holder’s testimony now expands this program to include individuals on the autistic spectrum.

A core component of the grant program is the distribution of tracking and individual transmitter equipment. These technologies can be worn by an individual as a watch, pager, belt, shoelace, anklet or even sewn into clothing. At any time, if the individual is thought to have wandered or eloped, the technology can help families and authorities pin point the person’s location, reducing the time needed to find a child by 95 percent and creating a greater chance of a safe return.

Research suggests the highest risk of elopement exists from age four to seven where about one in two children on the autistic spectrum attempt to elope. At age eight to eleven about one in four children will attempt to elope. The children with autism who have the most limited intelligence and communication skills are the most likely to elope, meaning these children are not prone to approach community members or police officers for help, respond to questions when approached and fail to respond to their own name. Furthermore, while eloping, individuals with autism are likely to seek high-risk areas such as roads and bodies of water. The same study found that 65 percent of missing children resulted in “close calls with traffic injury” and 24 percent were at risk of drowning. According to the National Autism Association, accidental drowning causes 91percent of deaths in elopement scenarios. In addition to Mr. Holder’s announcement that the already existing Alzheimer’s grant program can be used to purchase these tracking devices for individuals on the autism spectrum immediately, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York plans to develop legislation that would create a separate grant program specifically for funding services for individuals with autism. Schumer’s plan – Avonte’s Law- is named after a young man with autism who eloped from school and was missing for more than 100 days before police located his remains washed ashore in Queens.

The expansion of the existing grant and the establishment of Avonte’s Law stands to save an extraordinary amount of time, resources and man power for local police departments. Schumer estimates that each tracking device provided through Avonte’s Law will cost approximately $85 plus monthly fees. Similar products like PAL and Comfort Zone cost $99 and $149 respectively. During the 104 days Avonte was missing, police viewed “more than 200 videos, fielded hundreds of tips and employed every tool in their arsenal, including bloodhounds and helicopters.,” according to a recent New York Times article.  In a similar case, the Virginia Beach Police spent $36,000 when a woman with Alzheimer’s disappeared from her home for six days. The investment in this technology will cut down high costs associated with these extensive searches and additional manpower.

Expanding coverage to individuals with autism is particularly cost efficient because of the recurrent nature of behavior similar to individuals with Alzheimer’s. With both conditions, some individuals are more prone to wandering or elopement behaviors than others. 29 percent of parents report that their child with autism attempted to elope multiple times a day and 35 percent reported that attempts occurred at least once per week. To see the best results and most cost savings, there should be a priority to provide tracking services first to individuals who show repetitive elopement and wandering behaviors.

According to Schumer, his new legislation will be proposed despite the expansion of the current grant program to “ensure the revenue stream for years to come.” In relation to Schumer’s legislation, Holder agrees “a dedicated funding stream makes a great deal of sense.”

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