JOHNSTON, RI -- The Autism Project (TAP) is helping Rhode Island’s first-responders effectively interact with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), particularly when young people with ASD wander from safe environments.  Wandering is a common behavior among autistic individuals that can result in injury or death if the person is not located in a timely manner.

TAP is getting an assist from U.S. Senator Jack Reed, who helped pass Kevin and Avonte’s law in the 114th Congress.  Kevin and Avonte’s law is named in honor of two boys with autism -- 9-year-old Kevin Curtis Wills of Iowa and 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo of New York -- who perished after wandering away from supervised settings.

The Autism Project recently won a $100,000 federal grant under Kevin and Avonte’s law to help reduce wandering and elopement incidents among individuals with autism and/or developmental and cognitive disabilities. TAP will also provide training to first responders and law enforcement, educators, and the families and caregivers of individuals with ASD or developmental disabilities, so they are better prepared to manage crises stemming from wandering and elopement within underserved populations. 

TAP’s training videos help first responders and community members better understand sensory and communication impairments that individuals with ASD may be experiencing, especially when they are away from their family or caregiver.  The training also provides tips for positive interactions with ASD individuals, whether it’s a friendly visit or if someone with ASD is experiencing a difficult time with adverse behaviors.  The videos provide an overview of behaviors and types of communication (verbal, behavioral, and non-verbal) to better understand the needs/wants of an ASD individual, as well as effective methods for providing positive behavioral support.

“I commend the Autism Project for the critical work they do to improve the lives of individuals with ASD and support families and caregivers throughout the state,” said Senator Reed.  “When a child with autism or family member with special needs goes missing, it can be a frantic and harrowing experience.  This program is going to help save lives.  It will help prevent wandering incidents from becoming tragedies.  It will facilitate law enforcement and caregiver training and provide additional information and resources to help first responders effectively locate an at-risk individual and safely reunite them with their loved ones.”

“This federal funding will allow us to build on the work we’ve done the last three years to support public safety personnel,” said Joanne Quinn, executive director of TAP. “The response is amazing and we look forward to working together to improve the safety of members of our community.”

According to TAP, about 22,000 Rhode Islanders have autism.  TAP serves the entire state of Rhode Island, but much of this project will focus on assisting families and autistic people living in diverse urban areas of Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket.

TAP is developing a series of videos and in-person trainings and materials for first responders, educators, and families/caregivers.  TAP will also introduce families and children with ASD to law enforcement and first responders at various events and their Camp WANNAGOAGAIN!.

“It’s so important for our public safety personnel to meet our community in a stress-free environment so both groups are comfortable with each other and understand strategies to support an autistic person and their family during a search and rescue, or other emergency encounter,” commented Ms. Quinn.

According the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly half of children with ASD go missing from their environment, with a substantial number at risk for bodily harm or drowning.  Children on the autism spectrum may seek out small or enclosed spaces, head toward water or places of special interest to them, such as trains, or they may try to escape overwhelming stimuli such as crowds and loud noise.  They may also not verbally respond to first responders searching for them.

In addition to voting to enact Kevin and Avonte’s law in 2018, Senator Reed also helped the U.S. Senate pass a reauthorization (S. 4885) last month.  Since its passage, Kevin and Avonte’s law has resulted in local communities across the country receiving $10 million in critical funding for programs to reduce the dangers associated with wandering.

The Senate-passed reauthorization bill includes an alert program to help notify communities about missing individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease, autism, and other developmental issues. It also allows Justice Department grants to be used for state and local education and training programs to help prevent wandering and reunite caregivers with missing family members who have a condition linked to wandering.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, children and young teens with ASD are 40 times more likely to die from preventable injury than the general child population.  Drowning is the most common fatal injury among children with autism.

TAP was selected by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance as one of 16 organizations throughout the country to develop this kind of specialized training materials to assist first-responders.