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Program to help GPS track autistic children

By: Deven Clarke

DUBOIS, Pa. -- Parents of children who have autism are no different from other parents in wanting one thing: To keep their children safe. Parents with autistic children admit, it can sometimes be harder for them, and a big challenge is keeping their kids from wandering off.

The federal government recently released money to help parents of autistic children get GPS trackers to put on their children. Individually, they cost between $80 and $130, but adding up data plan costs, it can be expensive.

Parents said it's a good start, but it's still not enough.

The issue is real for people like Stacy Hanzely, of DuBois. She is the mother of five children and two of them are identical twin boys who have autism and Down syndrome. Hanzely said she has had her children wander away despite taking precautions.

"We have fenced in our backyard, we have door alarms on," she said. "Even with those barriers, they left."

Hanzley's sons were found uninjured, but these stories don't always have good endings.

In New York City last year, the story about Avonte Oquendo got national attention. He was a teenager with autism, who ran through open doors at his school. Oquendo's body was found months later, on a beach.

Oquendo's story brought attention to the problem parents and care givers of children with autism face. They say that these children can get over stimulated, panicked and scared easily, or they can gravitate toward something that captures their attention. They can do so without understanding the danger.

Since Oquendo's story, New York Sen. Charles Schumer has proposed Avonte's Law a plan to get more money available for GPS tracking devices so families can find their lost children quicker. The national program will cost about $10 million.

"I've actually looked into getting something like that for my son," said Kelly King, of DuBois, whose 15-year-old son is autistic. "I know that has been a successful tool for a lot of families, and just gives them the reassurance to know that their child can be located."

Data from the National Autism Association shows that 49 percent of autistic children wander off. That is four times higher than their siblings that do not have autism.

Through a new grant program, Avonte's Law would allow local police departments to provide parents with a GPS device. Some devices can be linked to a smartphone, tablet or computer. In addition to helping locate a missing child and notifying the parent when that child has stepped out of set parameters, they can send an alert to notify the parent their child is near a registered sex offender.

Another study by the National Autism Association showed that nearly half of children with autism attempt to leave a safe environment.

While parents of children with autism admit GPS devices could help locate a missing child, they said this isn't the end all solution to keeping them safe.

"Unfortunately there are some areas where that tracking device may not be adequate because of poor cellular service," King said.

Uzma Shah, of DuBois, has an autistic 14-year-old son, but is wary of the technology.

"Technology can often fail," Shah said. "We're in a rural part of the state."

Most parents agreed, saying the best way to protect their children is simple, it's about having more people helping to watch over them.

"A lot of kids, particularly while they're at school, have [a] one to one aide or a TSS (Therapeutic Support Staff) who is working with them and having an adult set of eyes on our kids," Uzma said.

But such support costs money.

There have been cuts nationally and at the state level to TSS and aide programs, parents said. Many students who had full-time aides like Angie Witherow, no longer have them in the classroom.

"I've been a TSS for 10 years," Witherow said. "Through the years, my hours have gone down due to budget cuts and funding from the state."

The U.S. Department of Justice recently agreed to use government funds to provide the GPS devices to special needs children.

"I would just say, it's about time and I really appreciate the efforts of lawmakers to make these available," King said.

 
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