If you have not yet heard about Avonte Oquendo, you should have by now. Whether or not you have a child with autism. It is a sad, horrific story for any parent of a child with autism, who thinks that their child is safe at school. Avonte walked out of his school in Queens in the middle of the day and disappeared. His family has been looking for him since late fall and his remains have washed up on a shore and the grieving family is now looking for answers. The school district as usual is saying that it was not there fault.
As advocates, we have to ask: where were the teachers, the assistants, the security protocol for the school? We do not have Avonte’s IEP in front of us so we don’t know what services he had or didn’t have from his district–but we know that there was a breakdown in an adequate plan for him and the follow-through by his school in that plan.
As we know from so many school situations the past few years, public schools are not automatically safe for any child. And children with disabilities in the school system are more vulnerable and school districts and teachers have an advantage and are more protected than students with disabilities are. The numbers don’t lie: people with disabilities will likely end up living in poverty and will likely end up neglected or abused. We can only hope that, as in the past, advocates will lead the way to create more safety nets for them as a result of these continuing tragedies.
We could get into the myriad of reasons why it happens: too much light/sound (sensory), or into the communication aspects of our children who can’t vocalize their needs and get frustrated. But that’s really not the problem–the problem is that we are ill equipped, at home and at school to handle wandering.
Case in point: my own son who has set off emergency exit alarms in airports, ran away from me in airports and then security is called and holding ME back while they “ask” him questions (a joke because most of his responses in times of stress will be to repeat things/echolalia). This also happened to us just two days ago: my son ran away from me while walking down the street to a restaurant for dinner. I did not have an attendant on hand because they called in sick so it was just me, running after him on a busy street. We have a home that we have cameras and alarms and sensors in for when he tries to run away. I advise most of my clients to do this also.
If you have a child with autism who is prone to wandering, you MUST:
1) READ your child’s IEP. What is the staff to student ratio on their plan? Do they need assistance walking to/from classes, the cafeteria, etc? Maybe they need a low (1:1, 1:2) ratio for all or part of their school day to ensure their safety. Ask for an IEP meeting and ask for it.
2) If the school says no, ask for a FBA (functional behavioral analysis) to determine times of behavior or safety needs. You don’t have to agree, in fact, DISAGREE with them on the IEP and state and sign why you disagree.
3) If the FBA comes back and still states that your child doesn’t need more assistance (chances are it might, since it’s an evaluation done by a school person), then disagree with that and ask for an independent educational evaluation (IEE), at district expense, to get an outside expert to evaluate your child’s needs in the school setting. You are entitled to one by law.
4) OBSERVE your child at school. In various settings! Drop in on the school to give them a lunch, a treat, a forgotten jacket, whatever. Don’t stay all day (you need to be there just enough so they know you are aware, not enough to be the crazy parent–trust me when I say I have had clients who have had trespassing charges from overzealous and retaliatory districts). Note the times and places your child is in when you stop by and see if it’s according to their IEP. Just because it says on the IEP that your child has a full-time 1;1 aide, that doesn’t mean it’s actually occurring. If that happens, you have a few other methods at your disposal such as filing a state complaint, a due process complaint, and so on.
5) Ask for daily logs to come home that have a simple sign-in for who was with your child, and when. For nonverbal children who can’t tell you about their day, this is crucial. You can ask for this in an IEP meeting, and should.
6) Establish safety protocols: drop-off and pick-up procedures. Your child may need to be handed over from adult to adult for these times and you need to know who is doing what and when. I have seen too many clients get “lost” during these times, when an aide assumes another aide is responsible and there is no clear person in charge.
7) INTRODUCE YOUR CHILD to school staff! This takes work but is necessary. You can have staffings with the school staff and even ask that they be trained in autism and how to recognize and respond to it. Think this is too much? I’ve had cafeteria staff, janitors and school clerks have in-service training on autism for clients, because they are part of the child’s day and can assist as needed, and transitions are a high-stress time for them.
8) Remember that the above tips are just for ensuring safety at school. This has no bearing on the other 17 or so hours of the day when you are responsible as a parent for their safety. Are you getting all you need from state and disability and social service agencies? If not, you will need to make a plan for that.
If you need more help, reach out to other parents and more importantly, contact a local advocate or attorney in your area! Some work as part of agencies and can be free of charge or on a sliding scale, others work on their own or for law firms. At GPS Advocacy we do both, but also do phone/internet consultations to get parents on track and at least knowledgeable about where to begin. We can also refer to an advocate in your area or an advocate I’ve trained, if available. But whatever you do, begin the process NOW.