The tragic disappearance of Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old-boy with autism who wandered away from his school in Queens, NY six weeks ago, has focused national attention on the deadly problem of wandering by children with autism. Wandering is hard to discuss, as it is tinged with judgment and misunderstanding, with blame often placed on parents, schools or caretakers. Even among parents of children with autism, the topic is taboo because of the misconception that good parents would never lose their child.
Recognizing this limitation, Lori McIlwain, Director of the National Autism Association, has recently shared her personal nightmare of losing her own son, who wandered away. McIlwain provides a platform for parents to dialogue openly about wandering, without judgment. The terror and tragedy of wandering is often blamed on bad parenting, instead of the innately stealth nature of wandering. One minute you are confident, knowing your child is safe, wearing an expensive GPS tracking device; the next, you panic when you discover the broken tracking device lying next to the peanut butter jar.
Response to the dangers of autistic wandering lacks national protocols and best practices to help parents, teachers, or first responders. Current “solutions” range from locked doors and long leashes, to tracking devices and behavior modifications. In the past 10 years, organizations like the NAA and Autism Speaks have provided parents much needed resources and advocacy. But advocates like Ms. McIlwain know a more comprehensive approach is needed.
One critical resource vastly underutilized is the use of search dogs to find a child who has wandered away. As the director of KYK9 Search and Reunite Services, we train search dogs to work with and find missing children with autism. We have created a Scent for Safety Program which involves the collection and storage of your child's unique scent. A scent kit can be kept at home and school. If your child wanders, you can call KYK9 and a local dog team can be deployed to immediately start tracking your child. Using search dogs can reduce the amount of time your child is actually missing, which dramatically increases the likelihood of a positive outcome.
As best practices are developed, I strongly urge autism advocates, parents, and community leaders to make Scent for Safety a resource available at the local level, family by family. Scent for Safety should become part of a standard response protocol in a multiple-pronged approach to keep children with autism safe from the deadly dangers of wandering away. In the meanwhile, the search continues for Avonte, and we can only hope that he will be found soon ending his parents’ anguish.