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Autism Bill Aims to Reduce Injury and Death from Wandering

PHOTO: April is Autism Awareness Month. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is a co-sponsor of a bill in the Senate that would help to reduce the risk of injury and death related to the wandering of individuals with autism. Photo credit xpistwv/Morguefile.
PHOTO: April is Autism Awareness Month. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is a co-sponsor of a bill in the Senate that would help to reduce the risk of injury and death related to the wandering of individuals with autism. Photo credit xpistwv/Morguefile.
April 1, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS - Nearly half of children on the autism spectrum are believed to engage in wandering, a behavior that can end in tragedy.

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is a co-sponsor of a bill known as Avonte's Law that would provide funding for police departments to purchase equipment that can help locate people with an autism-spectrum disorder who go missing.

Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, said those with autism typically wander toward something of interest or flee an overwhelming environment.

"Noises, lights and people and hearing five different conversations at the same time - that kind of stuff can be magnified for people on the spectrum," she said. "A lot of times, the only thing they can do is run away. That's the only way they can get any relief from that sensory overload."

Because of challenges with communication and safety awareness, children or adults with autism can end up in dangerous situations when they wander, Fournier said. Just a few weeks ago, a 4-year-old Jeffersonville boy with autism was rescued from a wastewater treatment pool after wandering from his mother.

Avonte's Law is named after a 14-year-old with autism whose body was discovered in a river three months after he ran away from his New York City school.

Dana Renay, chief executive ally for the Autism Society of Indiana, said the bill also calls for training for law-enforcement agencies to better recognize and respond to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"There are characteristics of autism that might seem to be aggressive but really are not," she said. "It's not the same as somebody who is not on the spectrum who might be scared, but might be able to understand the situation. "

Renay said the funding also could be used to expand the Project Lifesaver Program, which currently is used in about 40 Indiana counties. It uses a radio transmitter to help track a person with autism who goes missing. In Marion County, Renay said, they have a 100 percent find rate.

"The individuals that they find are alive and they are able to find them in less than an hour," she said. "So the financial investment of these devices and these systems is worth every penny."

April is Autism Awareness Month, and today is being observed as a Day of Remembrance for those with autism who lost their lives while wandering.

Text of the bill is online at congress.gov. More information on wandering is at aware.nationalautismassociation.org.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IN