Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ottawa helps lost/missing autistic children

UPDATE: Here is a link to the Ottawa Police page about the Autism Registry.

A couple of points:

  1. Thursday is World Autism Awareness day
  2. Ottawa is establishing an Autism Registry, to help the police in finding autistic kids who have gone missing. Click here to read the CBC Ottawa article.
It is a terror we have endured too many times: Peter periodically "goes missing." Peter has Asperger Syndrome, a "mild" autistic disorder. While he is intellectually gifted in some areas, in other ways he is scarily "out of it." He misses cues, doesn't follow instructions that everyone else seems to get; he doesn't ask for help; he often comes up with illogical solutions to his problems. Furthermore he looks "normal" so people who would ordinarily help or watch out for someone with special needs, don't think to ask him if he is in trouble. Anyone who has read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" (a fantastic book, by the way) will recognize this portrait.

One year, (I think he was 10 or 11), he followed a bunch of kids onto a school bus - not realizing that there were several different buses, each with a different route. When he was the last kid on the bus, he told the bus driver how to get to our house. By the time he got home, an hour late, the police were just driving up to our house. I was beside myself with fear over what might have happened to my little boy.

Another time, he got on the wrong bus and ended up in another town, waiting in a public park until we found him. After that, the school board conceded that he was elegible for special busing. Once, he decided to walk home, 2 miles in the dark, in winter, when his driver showed up with a different-colored van than usual. Although we had given him instructions and money for a phone booth, he didn't think to call home: he knew where home was, he just needed to get there. Again, the police were already at our house, ready to help us find him, trying to reassure me that he would be okay.

The fall we first moved here to Colorado Springs, Peter was teased at school and decided to run away back to Canada. I canvassed the neighborhood - no one had seen him. This time, when I called the police they said they wouldn't look for him, even with his disability, because he was able to "dress and feed himself." It was not until I told them I was worried he might be suicidal (he left an alarming note) that they decided to send an officer. (In the end, one of the neighbors I'd spoken to had decided to drive around and look for Peter - a little further afield than I had gone. Miracle: he found Peter. Scary miracle: Peter got in the car with this stranger who immediately brought him home. I can't tell you how much I thank God for that neighbor, whose name I never thought to get! I was just so grateful and stunned.)

As recently as this school year, he has wound up at the far south end of Colorado Springs by getting on the wrong bus. (At least now he has a cell phone and - fortunately - it was charged and working.)

But it is a fear I still live with: that Peter will "go missing" and we will not be able to find him before something tragic happens. We are moving back to Ottawa this summer, and I find it reassuring that we are moving somewhere where the police recognize that autism does present unique challenges when it comes to missing children - or adults for that matter. Just the same, I pray we never need to call on their aid.

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