Lost on the Autism Spectrum: A Police Response

Spoiler Alert: This has a Happy Ending

Raising children and ensuring their safety is a challenge for parents in the 21st Century. Raising ones who are on the Autism Spectrum presents a whole different challenge!

In my 20+ years as a cop, I have responded to many calls for runaway or missing children. In 95 percent of these, the child is located or returned safely within minutes.

The other 5 percent required more effort.


In recent years I have noticed an increase in missing children who are on the autism spectrum. They have ranged from highly functioning to non-verbal.

In the summer of 2015, my entire shift responded to a call of a missing 10 year old autistic boy who was both non-verbal and new to the area.

This article will highlight the police response to a call of this nature and also things you can do to help the police find your child.

1. Trust the Process

 Please know that the police want to find your child.

Cops are people. We feel pain, sorrow, and empathy. However, we have a job to do. When everything is going to hell in a hand basket, we have to be the ones who keep it together and solve the problem.

When my first officer arrived on the scene (I was the Squad Sergeant), he was met with complete chaos. The family was distraught beyond comprehension (and I don’t blame them). There was also a language barrier that didn’t help the situation.

Typically, the first thing we do is to thoroughly check the house to make sure the child isn’t just hiding.

You laugh but here’s why:

Several years back, officers on my department were checking the neighborhood for a lost 4 year old. After re-checking the house, wouldn’t you know it, the kid had zipped himself up into a suitcase and fallen asleep!

You can’t make this stuff up!

 

2. Calls Like This Are Priority One

Every available cop and detective will respond to a call of this nature.

Time is the enemy. So are the elements of nature.

You want to throw every available resource at the problem in order to find the child quickly, especially if he or she has a diminished mental capacity or is on the extreme end of the autism spectrum.

After what seemed like an eternity we were able to calm the parents down enough to get the basic questions answered. The boy was Autistic.  He was both non-verbal and potentially aggressive.


To make things worse, he had been missing for almost an hour. Oh, and did I mention it was almost 1 billion degrees outside! When I say hot, I mean Virginia- in- the- summertime- nasty- humid- hot!

I immediately called out the K-9 Handler for a bloodhound track. While waiting for the K-9, I had officers checking the neighborhood and surrounding businesses.

Up until the Bloodhound arrived, we were getting very little information or leads. What we do know about people on the spectruCold day out in country parkm is they tend to gravitate towards water or places they are familiar with.  The K-9 Handler arrived with the bloodhound, Sally, and the track would soon begin.

autism spectrum

For those who don’t know how a bloodhound develops a track, here’s a quick run-down.

With your typical German Shepherd police K-9, the most recent scent left by a person through ground disturbance is the primary method by which they search. A bloodhound track is similar but also different.

Before a bloodhound track is conducted, the handler will gather an article of clothing or bedding that the person had recently come in contact with. These articles will then be placed inside of a plastic bag.

This process is called “baking”.

The handler then, after several minutes, will open the bag and let the bloodhound get a good whiff of the scent emanating from the bag. The bloodhound has been trained to track the trail of that scent until the person is found. I don’t need to remind you that a dog, especially a bloodhound, have a sense of smell millions of times stronger than ours.

3. The Police Are Trained For This

 Most cops are now receiving Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to better handle mental health incidents like these and those on the autism spectrum.

The irony in the above statement was that I had recently completed this training. To add even more irony, one of my scenarios dealt with making contact with an boy on the autism spectrum who was non-verbal! The K-9 Handler began his track which led out of the neighborhood onto a main road in our city. One of my worries was the oppressive heat. Not just for the missing boy, but for my officers.

The track continued for almost one mile when the bloodhound, Sally, became overheated and needed a break. When I arrived to her location I could see her proned out underneath a shaded tree laying on her side. Her handler and the officer that assisted on the track didn’t look much better.

I told them to take 15 and re-hydrate.autism spectrum

At this point we had checked every possible location. Where could he have gone in such a short time and in this oppressive heat? The family said that he had no friends or other acquaintances. We also checked every possible business within a two mile radius and nothing.

This was not good.

At that point upper management was notified of the complaint and that the boy was still missing. Out of extreme caution, I also notified our Marine Patrol Unit for a potential water-born search.

Cops adapt well to just about any situation and are masters at hiding their emotions. As the one in charge that day, I had to keep it together despite the increasing likelihood that this would not end well.


At about this time I was notified that our lost child was possibly located at a Target Department Store over 4 miles away from his house!  

Officers responded and confirmed that we had located the boy! It was also confirmed, through video surveillance, that he had not been dropped off but had walked the entire distance. After some convincing, the boy agreed to let one of the officers give him a ride home. The parents were beside themselves with joy upon hearing the good news.

4. Things To Consider

Always maintain awareness of your child’s whereabouts.

It’s easy to get caught up with all the distractions in today’s world. I would be lying if I said it didn’t affect me too.

It only takes a few minutes for a child to become lost when they have slipped out of sight of the parents. I know. Its happened to me.

The stakes are even higher if you are the parent of an Autistic child. After we had located the missing boy in this case, I made sure that the officer who works that area conducted follow-up checks with the family. This served two purposes:

One, it ensured the family that we are there to support and provide outside resources, if necessary.

Second, it allowed the child to become familiar with the officer and vice versa. This is important, especially for those on the spectrum who are non-verbal. It also allows the officer to gather information and other tendencies on the child in case he were to wander off again.

It’s been over a year and the boy still hasn’t been able to explain in much detail the events of that day.

And that’s okay.

The lost boy on the autism spectrum that day showed all of us that a good walk needs no words.

A 23-year veteran police officer, Bart spent time as a patrolmen and a violent crimes detective (specialized in strategic intelligence and research analysis). Aside from this experience in high profile case investigations, he has received training from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in Advanced Intelligence Analysis. Bart also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice and Strategic Intelligence (Magna Cum Laude) from Liberty University. As a father of four, husband and law enforcement officer, he wants to share his knowledge on safety with you. Bart is also a contributing writer for Law Enforcement Today.

12 Comments

  • Amy Jones November 7, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    Another informative & very interesting blog, Bart! Great job!!

    Reply
    • Bart Proctor November 7, 2016 at 3:59 pm

      Thanks Amy. I am just glad that everything came together that day for a successful outcome. As always, have a great day and stay safe!

      Reply
  • Carol Ann Morris November 12, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Wow!! Great blog Bart! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Keep them coming!

    Reply
    • Bart Proctor November 12, 2016 at 5:28 pm

      Thank you Carol Ann! My hope is to spread awareness to incidents such as these and others.

      Reply
  • Diane Sapp November 17, 2016 at 5:24 pm

    Love your blog Bart……very informative and I look forward to more of your blogs…..I am so impressed and proud of you….

    Reply
    • Bart Proctor November 17, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      Thank you so much Diane! People need to hear more of the positive that police officers do on a daily basis.

      Reply
  • Dave Ellis November 17, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    Bart
    Awesome article on a very
    challenging situation . I’m very impressed with your perspective and efforts taken
    Both by you as the shift commander and the other HPD officers. Thank you
    For your service and the many sacrifices that you make to keep all of us safe .

    Reply
    • Bart Proctor November 17, 2016 at 6:12 pm

      Thank you Dave! It was a trying day for all involved. It was good to have a positive outcome for everyone.

      Reply
  • Mike Brewer November 17, 2016 at 6:34 pm

    Great informative article, thank you. Thank you for adding light to this subject too. We need more of these.
    ~ Mike

    Reply
    • Bart Proctor November 18, 2016 at 8:41 pm

      Thank you Mike! I will do my best!

      Reply
  • Lacey November 23, 2016 at 3:53 am

    Well written Bart…you shared your story and experience with compassion and wisdom…nice one!

    Reply
    • Bart Proctor November 23, 2016 at 1:41 pm

      Thank you Lacey for the kind words! It was one good day that ended on a positive note. Take care and be safe!

      Reply

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