Letter to the Editor: Autism expert says Poughkeepsie school put child at risk

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Dear Editor,

I read the story of the seven-year-old autistic child found after having wandered from his school by police.  I am, unfortunately, far too familiar with the pattern of children with autism wandering or eloping.  As director of a regional center for autism in southeast Florida, I have seen elopements often tragically result in drowning or near-drowning.  Rescuing a child as quickly as possible is essential. Responsible adults must place a call to 911 immediately if we hope to ensure the missing child’s safety.

The only agency which can provide comprehensive search and rescue is local law enforcement.  They have the training, mission, equipment, and personnel (human and canine), in-depth if needed, to conduct effective searches.  In my region, most agencies have received training in conducting searches for children with autism, allowing even faster rescue. In my experience police welcome the call to find a missing child and, if it is a child with autism, they understand the importance of finding the child quickly.

Two big problems get in the way of rapid law enforcement action.  On the home front, parents of a child with autism will search every part of the house, often wasting 20 or 30 minutes before calling 911.  Similarly, school administrators may insist on searching the entire school premises in the hope that the child will be found.  This can take 30 or more minutes during which time a child with autism or with no disability can be long gone. And in grave danger.  This seems to have been the case in the March 23 elopement from Morse Elementary School.  The delay commonly called for by administrators serves no good purpose in relation to child safety. The delay, when analyzed, only serves to save the principal the potential embarrassment of having to report a missing child to the school district, parent, and then later to the police.  This is not a valid reason to delay the call. The call to 911 must be issued as soon as the teacher responsible for the child confirms the child is missing. This is usually just a very few minutes. If the child is found safe at the school, the police are notified, and they will be happy the child is safe. But with the delay, police know the odds begin to work against them and they face what may be one of the hardest jobs any law enforcement professional may ever face; finding the body of a child dead by drowning or other means.

To lessen this risk two things should happen.  Schools should establish elopement policies for children with autism and developmental disabilities, policies requiring immediate calls to 911. Second, law enforcement must have training in responding to a call about a missing child or adult with autism so their searches and also other interactions with them are positive.  Both things must happen before a tragedy and not after, as is so often the case.  Your region can do so before a child with autism dies because of a preventable “accident.”

Jack Scott, PhD
Executive Director
Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD)
Board member Autism Society of America
Mr. Scott is the author of Safeguarding your child with autism, published in 2020 by Woodbine.

The opinions expressed in this letter are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Mid-Hudson News.