When I learned the news about Avonte Oquendo’s disappearance, I reacted as a mother of a teenage son who has an autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability and is non-verbal. I reacted as a mother whose own child had gone missing on the way home from school. I also reacted as a special education advocate who has worked with hundreds of families who have children who are similar to Avonte and mine. When you have a child who needs supervision to be safe, Avonte’s story is a parent’s worst nightmare.
I shudder for Avonte’s parents and wonder, “how could this happen?” The fact is it shouldn’t happen. It is unconscionable and unjustifiable. I’ve followed the news about Avonte and I hope changes will come as result of this tragic, tragic course of events.
It took a frightening event with my son for me to realize that I could have his IEP (Individualized Education Program) reflect protocols to address safety issues. In my son’s case, his van was a half hour late coming home from school, which never happened. I know my situation can’t compare to what the Oquendo family has gone through, but it was the event for me that made me realize I must put safety first in my son’s IEP. So on that day, when the van was 10 minutes late I called my son’s aide on his cell phone. His aide was a wonderful grandfather who cared for my son like his own. He informed me that the driver deliberately took off without him and he was furious about it. I immediately called the police to see if there was traffic on the route they traveled. There was not. I alerted the police about the situation. Twenty more painful, panic-filled minutes passed. When my son finally arrived home, I was furious with the driver. I asked him why he left the bus yard without my son’s aide. He said, “I didn’t know he had to come with me.” I knew he was lying as he had driven with my son and his aide for the entire previous week. He had deliberately left without him, which I imagined was to get my son alone. Needless to say he was fired. So many things had gone wrong that should have never been allowed to happen.
All I knew was that my son was alone with this man for a half hour which could not be accounted for. My son could not tell me what happened. What an awful feeling it was when I had to check my son’s private areas. To this day, I will never know if anything happened. But I’ll tell you what, I was a mother on fire!
From that day forward, his IEP included detailed instructions for the transportation company and his school. The driver is to never leave the bus yard without the aide, the driver and aide are assigned to my son’s route and follow the protocol, and there is a plan in place for when either one of them is sick and can’t drive that day. My son’s school has a protocol which details that he should never be released from school if the driver shows up alone. This safety plan is a part of my son’s IEP.
I do also worry about wandering off and elopement at school. Thankfully, a safety plan for wandering isn’t something I had to incorporate into his IEP as his school follows strict, school-wide procedures.
Wandering and elopement is a common challenge for many children and adults who have autism and other developmental disabilities. When your child is at risk for elopement at school, I want you to know that you can meet with your IEP team and request a written plan or protocols to address behavior that puts your child at risk. You can request ongoing staff training on the written protocols. I’ve been involved with many IEP teams over the years in developing and incorporating safety plans into the IEP. Also, ask to see your school’s written, school-wide protocols for elopement.
Whatever puts your child at risk, please, please know that you can address it through your child’s IEP.