‘We have a scholarship program.’ Autism alliance works to make GPS trackers available

Contributed by Sarah Atwood of the Lansing State Journal

LANSING — Parents of children with autism and those advocating for them say GPS tracking devices could help alleviate a big concern of theirs.
Young children with autism often have the urge to “elope” or leave home without anyone knowing. The exact cause of this behavior is unknown, but experts like Erik Gallery of the Autism Alliance of Michigan in Southfield say it could be triggered by fear, feeling like something is wrong or simply curiosity.
According to data from the National Autism Association, half the children with autism are likely to wander away from a safe setting at least once.
To address this, the Autism Alliance of Michigan has a program called MiNavigator and partners with a manufacturer of GPS tracking devices, AngelSense. Gallery, the Autism Alliance’s statewide access director, said that the goal is to make sure that everyone who needs one can get one.
“We have a scholarship program, and through this, families who might not have felt like they could afford one can get one and a year subscription to the GPS service for free,” he said.
AngelSense’s GPS tracker retails from $229. This is in addition to the mandatory subscription to their GPS service, which ranges from $45 to $65 a month depending on if a year subscription or month-to-month subscription is chosen. Currently, AngelSense is offering their devices for free.
Gallery said that because of a recent tragedy in Michigan, the organization wants families of autistic children to be more aware of how dangerous a child wandering away could be.
In October, a nonverbal 2-year-old with autism in Watertown Township wandered away from home while his babysitter was showering. After an extensive search, he was found in the Looking Glass River. Authorities say he likely fell in and drowned.
Allison Woodworth, a Greater Lansing parent of a 16-year-old with autism, had her own experience with her child wandering away when he was younger.
“Roman was sick one day, so he stayed home from preschool, and I stayed with him,” she said. “We napped together, and when I woke up, he was gone. Not in the house, not right outside. I called 911. Luckily, someone had picked him up. They found him on a busy road, walking right down the middle.”
Woodworth said her son knew he was supposed to be in school that day, and he was trying to make his way back to where he was meant to be.
After that, she tried to use the tracking devices available at the time.
“Back then, it was this huge, watch-like thing that was fastened with a screw so he couldn’t get it off,” she said. “Well, a year later, I noticed he wasn’t wearing it. He hated wearing it so much that he chewed it off.”
Sensory issues are common for people with autism. AngelSense tries to address that by providing a variety of options to choose from, including an undershirt and a belt with GPS capabilities embedded. Still, they are not common.
“We don’t see a lot of people using them in this community,” said Bruce Ferguson, chief of the DeWitt Police Department. He also has a seat on the Autism Support of Michigan’s board of directors and has an autistic daughter.
“They are a fairly new technology, and people might not be aware,” he said. “But it’s easy to go online and see what could work for your family. I recommend them.”
These tracking devices are not a long-term solution, Gallery and Ferguson both said. They do not address the causes behind an autistic child’s urge to wander away.
“Parents and caregivers need to be aware of a child’s triggers, and be ready to redirect them if needed,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said people are more aware than they were in the past of what autism is and what it looks like, and the study of autism has come a long way since his daughter was young. He believes community awareness can help save children’s lives.
The Autism Alliance of Michigan works with families to help match them with doctors and therapists who can help their child in the long run, Gallery said. The goal is to be proactive when it comes to a child wandering off, versus relying on tracking devices.
“After what happened to the boy in Waterford, we sent out safety alerts to everyone in the Autism Alliance community,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’re doing our part to prevent tragedies like that in the future.”

Contact Sarah Atwood at satwood@lsj.com.