The National Autism Association says 49 percent of parents reported their autistic children have “eloped” or wandered away from grocery stores, schools, parks and their homes. These children can be referred to as “runners” and are known to sometimes leave their “safe spaces.”
In 2015, 31 individuals with autism wandered from safe settings and died, according to the Autism Safety Coalition. Examples include the tragic deaths of Kevin Curtis and Avonte Oquendo, children with autism who wandered from their safe environment and drowned. Kevin, a 9-year-old boy from Iowa, drowned in a river near a park in Iowa in 2008, and Avonte was a 14-year-old boy from Queens, New York, who drowned in the East River in 2014 after wandering from school.
Student transporters in charge of students with autism invariably have stories of “runners” at the bus stop. So what can they do to keep these students from harm’s way and out of risky environments?
To address this challenge, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) co-sponsored SB 2614, while Rep. Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) introduced House Bill 4919. Both bills, though differing slightly, sought to appropriate funds for education and prevention of students who run, elope or wander from their safe environments with the use of tracking devices.
While each bill failed to be enacted, Stuart Speilman, senior policy advisor and counsel for Autism Speaks, said both are expected to be re-introduced this session as they both carry wide support. “We must focus on the consensus that children wandering is a problem and the public needs to make sure all the people are safe,” he said. “Our first obligation is to make certain our kids are safe.”
The intent is to provide federal funding through the Department of Justice for teaching kids with autism safety and swimming skills, providing training and education for school personnel, including school bus drivers, and allowing for safety devices, as well as tracking devices for locating missing children who have autism.
Patrick Mulick, autism coordinator for Auburn School District in Washington state, said the primary focus should remain on proactively keeping autistic students safe by preventing them from wandering. He called the school bus the “final frontier” of the classroom, adding that fear is the main emotion with autism.
“Those students see the world from a different lens. When on a bus, often the kids are trying to get away or get to something,” Mulick said, adding that autistic students will often wander toward something they want. “It feels good to run. That desire automatically reinforces the run and not the danger.”
Mulick stated a challenge for autistic students is dealing with the unexpected. Transportation personnel, he said, must be pro-active and distract the students from wandering, keep certain kids apart and set the routes to accommodate specific children. Mulick added that in doing so, kids need to know how long the bus ride will be, how many stops it will make and where the final stop will be.
Mulick said educators and parents must continue to help autistic children to better adapt and understand the rules we live by, and help them find their way as they eventually look for jobs and housing.
Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted from the March 2017 issue of School Transportation News magazine.