When fourteen-year-old Avonte Oquendo disappeared from his New York City school last fall his family lived through every parent’s worst nightmare. It was months before his remains were found, and the family is still grappling with unanswered questions about the death of their autistic teen, including gaps in the school’s security protocol that allowed the special needs student to leave the grounds.
Wandering teens are a fear for every parent – I remember my own mother scolding me for breaking curfew because she was certain I was dead in a ditch – but for special needs children the risks are compounded. Autistic kids often don’t perceive danger, time or distance accurately and once they become lost they may be less willing to approach someone for help. Studies show that about half of autistic children will wander away at some point. And they’re not alone; on the other end of the life spectrum are people with Alzheimers disease who are prone to wandering off to follow a memory, or finding themselves unsure where they are as they move between moments of dementia and lucidity.
Wearable tech is making great strides for keeping track of these special family members with devices that can alert caregivers, or even the wearer, when predetermined boundaries are crossed. In fact in honor of Avonte Oquendo, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) stood with the teen’s mother and grandmother to announce the proposal of “Avonte’s Law” which would provide funding for wearable tracking devices for children with autism. The law expands a current Department of Justice program that funds tracking devices, distributed by law enforcement, for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The devices can be attached to wristwatches, bracelets, clipped on belts or woven through shoelaces. While critics balk at the idea of tracking children, comparing it to microchipping a pet, this system is it’s no less than what we do when we set up a GPS locator on our child’s cell phone or vehicle.
The program is entirely voluntary with family members deciding whether and when the device is worn. The notification system is up to municipalities; some towns determine that the device alerts authorities when the wearer crosses certain boundaries (say a school door) while others don’t activate until the wearer is reported missing. This new proposal would underwrite the required funding – eighty to ninety dollars for the device and a few dollars per month to operate it.
Children with autism often wander away because they are over-stimulated and seek to escape the environment. They’re drawn to water for its calming effect, which in the case of Avonte may have been his cause of death by accidental drowning. Another type of wearable tech offers help to parents before their child reaches a crisis point and tries to leave. Developed of Affectiva, the Q Sensor monitors stress levels during every day activities and can provide doctors and family members with important information about stressful triggers. It works by monitoring moisture levels under the skin, which increase in response to stress but also excitement or anticipation. Nonetheless the information can be used as part of an overall treatment regimen to identify sources of stress , as well as which relaxation techniques work best for the child.
Avonte’s family hopes that others will benefit from the law and the advances in technology that may just help a frightened child home.
Edited by Ryan Sartor
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