Lost and autistic can be double trouble

Saturday , June 21, 2014 - 12:00 AM

Standard-Examiner staff

CLEARFIELD — When 14-year-old Steven Smith turned up missing, the call wasn’t simply about a teenager who ran away, but a boy with an autism disorder who just disappeared.

Marie Smith, his mother, said that day almost two months ago at This Is The Place State Park taught her family they need to be extra vigilant when they go on outings as well as how kind strangers can be during a crisis. Her husband and eight of her children decided to pick her up from work to go on a picnic. Two of her children use wheelchairs, and while she and her husband were tending to them, Steven wandered off, something he had not done since he was 6 years old. 

Steven functions on the level of a 6- or 7-year old, said Smith, of Clearfield. Like many other children with an autism disorder, wandering away is just one of the conditions. He was missing for 15 hours and slept outside cuddled next to a fence by a house in the Avenues in Salt Lake City, five miles from where he disappeared.

Steven responds to his name, but does not verbalize well, Smith said.

According to a study funded by Autism Speaks, children with autism spectrum disorders are more likely to wander off, putting themselves in danger and putting stress on their families. Researchers found it was not because of inattentive parenting, but because the children tend to wander more than other children in their age group.

Layton Police Lt. Shawn Horton said officers always respond quickly when dispatchers receive a 911 call about a missing child.

In every case of a missing child, officers will first identify the hazards in the area, like water; plus search the area, whether it is a home or a park, multiple times.

“Children hide in odd places,” Horton said.

They then will determine how long a child has been gone, start contacting friends and family in the area, and implement the reverse 911 system.

When a child with special needs, like Steven, disappears, police need more information, Horton said.

Some parents attach a tracking device to the child, which makes it easier and faster for officers to find the child. Officers also need to know how the child will react when their name is called. They want to know if the child has a favorite place to go when they are facing stress, or if the child has a favorite song or toy that they will respond to if they hear or see it, Horton said.

Horton said parents help by telling officers the best way they can talk to the child when they approach them.

Layton offers “Smart911.” It is the only city in Utah that offers the service. Residents have to sign up through www.smart911.com and set up a profile. The more information added to the profile, the more information officers have about the lost child when a parent calls 911.

Smith said children like her son may appear physically normal to an outsider, but once someone starts talking to them it is evident they have a disability.

That is why it is important when a child is missing for the word to get out quickly, Smith said.

“The more eyes looking can help find them quicker,” Smith said.

For more information on how to prevent wandering of children with disorders go to www.autismspeaks.org/wandering-resources.

Contact reporter Loretta Park at 801-625-4252 or lpark@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @LorettaParkSE. Like her on Facebook athttp://www.facebook.com/SELorettaPark.


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