Jacksonville, FL, Wolfson Children’s Rehab Therapists Offer Special Training to Clay County Sheriff’s Office to Help Children With Autism

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Speech therapist and occupational therapist with Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville, FL, to train Clay County Sheriff's Office deputies on how to help a child with autism who has wandered/run away.

We’re not doing this in response to a tragedy in our area, We’re doing this to prevent one.

A 2012 study in Pediatrics confirmed what some parents already knew: nearly half of all children with an ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment. (ASD is the clinical term used to describe any form of autism or disorder on the autism spectrum.)

The most common elopement behaviors seen in these children are:

  • “Bolting” to get away from a situation the child wants to avoid, such as loud noise or a crowd
  • “Goal-directed,” or when a child with an ASD is fascinated and attracted to water, traffic, trains and other potentially dangerous situations without recognizing the risk
  • Boundary-setting issues, or not understanding the boundaries of home, school or other familiar settings

Lauren Papke, SLP, a pediatric speech-language pathologist with Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation Services, began to research the issue more closely after a parent of one of her patients, a 6-year-old child with autism, shared her anxiety about her son’s safety at school. “He has wandered away from his classroom several times, and had been found in the school parking lot or in a closet in another part of the school.”

The mom of a Boy Scout in Clay County, Lauren asked one of her son’s Scout leaders who is a Clay County Sheriff’s Office deputy if his training on dealing with runaways included how to identify and rescue a child with autism who had eloped.

When the officer said it didn’t, Lauren and her colleague, pediatric occupational therapist Courtney Ward, OTR/L, decided they had to help. They discovered that although there are major resources for police officers around the country on kids with autism, elopement prevention and handling these potentially dangerous situations, there were none on the First Coast.

“We know that kids with ASD don’t react the way child without autism would when approached by a police officer or another authority in an elopement situation,” said Lauren. “They may not respond to the officer’s orders, which could be interpreted as defiance, or they may bolt into water or traffic to escape the situation. In other cities, this has resulted in drowning and traffic-related deaths.” (News coverage of these tragedies here: http://www.awaare.org/newstories.htm)

“People may not realize that there are approximately 350 kids enrolled in the autism program associated with Clay County Public Schools, which means elopement is impacting hundreds of families on the First Coast,” said Courtney.

Lauren and Courtney approached Lt. Kenneth Wagner with the Professional Services Division/Training Section Office of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office with an offer to train officers on everything from a modified search and rescue for a missing child with autism, to reunification with parents and other caregivers. He gladly accepted.

Lt. Wagner said, “We are always looking for ideas for expanding the training we provide our members. I am sure there are ways our deputies can improve their interactions with special needs residents, including those with autism.”

Following deputy training in Clay County, the next step for Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation and specifically, Lauren and Courtney, is to offer training to other first responders in the area, as well as parent and teacher education on the dangers of elopement behaviors in children with autism.

“Ninety-one percent of deaths associated with people with autism are associated with drowning, secondary to elopement,” noted Courtney. “We’re not doing this in response to a tragedy in our area, We’re doing this to prevent one.”


About Wolfson Children’s Hospital
Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, serves as our region’s pediatric referral center and only hospital just for kids. The 213-bed, patient- and family-centered hospital features an environment filled with bright colors, warm smiles and the latest children’s medical technology. At Wolfson Children’s, nationally recognized pediatric specialists representing nearly every medical and surgical specialty work with pediatricians to provide care for children of all ages with congenital heart conditions, cancer, neurological disorders, orthopaedic conditions, behavioral health disorders, and more. The hospital is staffed by pediatric nurses and other healthcare professionals specially trained to work with children. Wolfson Children’s pediatric partners include Nemours Children’s Clinic, the University of Florida Jacksonville, and Mayo Clinic Florida. For additional information, please visit wolfsonchildrens.org.

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Vikki Mioduszewski

Deborah Circelli
Wolfson Children Hospital
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