When Children with Autism Wander from School 


The heartbreaking ending to the case of Avonte Oquendo, a non-verbal 14 year old with autism who walked out of his Long Island high school on October 4th, never to return, shines a harsh light on the safety of special needs children while at public schools. Security cameras captured him darting out a door towards a riverside park, but a cavalcade of errors made by the school left him missing until his remains were found scattered along the river bank earlier this week. His heartbroken parents intend to file a wrongful death suit against the school for taking too long to notice him missing, then even longer to adequately respond.

Mainstreaming is vaunted as the best case scenario for children with special needs, but the fact of the matter is that overcrowded schools are not adequately prepared for the task of having at-risk kids in their midst. Children with disabilities are disciplined at a much higher rate than neurotypical kids, which provokes a fight-or-flight response from them. Avonte’s school was five stories with five exits, and while a security officer noticed him in the hall and told him to get back to class, that individual failed to personally escort him to his destination.

What is the takeaway from this horrific scenario?

As parents, we must ask hard questions of our children’s schools. We need to nail down a safety plan for them when they are out of our hands. Ruffle feathers, hold people’s feet to the fire — this can happen anytime, anywhere.

There are many great resources for combating wandering. If I had a child with autism in the school system who was non-verbal and/or prone to wandering, I’d invest in a GPS device that can be worn like a wristwatch.

Here is one site that describes some of them:  FriendshipCircle.org

Another great resource dedicated to this cause comes from The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE).  This group is a collaborative effort from the nation’s top autism organizations who’s mission is to prevent wandering incidents and wandering-related deaths within the autism community through education, resources and awareness. They currently provide a free PDF wandering brochure, which can be downloaded at http://www.awaare.org/docs/wanderingbrochure.pdf

Be proactive about your child’s safety when they are out of your hands. Let’s make Avonte’s tragic death a wake up call that saves other children’s lives.

About the Author
Susan Moffitt