Brian Gewirtz, a 20-year-old Brooklyn man on the spectrum, has been missing since Feb. 17. His family is desperate for any information the community can provide to find him. His family has also created a Facebook page where news can be shared.
Gewirtz' disappearance has drawn comparisons to Avonte Oquendo's tragic wandering case in 2013. Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism, slipped out of his New York City school. A few months later, his remains were found on the waterfront near College Point in Queens.
The Daily Beast recently highlighted some of the struggles that families face when searching for their loved ones with autism:
Recent tragic events have revealed that when police officers do not understand disability, there can be tragic consequences. The person with an unsteady gait may not be drunk. The person who does not respond to verbal commands may not be defiant. The moment when police find someone who elopes should be the moment he or she is safe, but that is not always the case.
Oquendo’s case inspired Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, along with Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, to sponsor a bill known as Avonte’s Law. Avonte’s Law requires the Department of Justice make grants to law enforcement agencies for finding people in case of elopements. Most notably, the bill would make available an optional tracking technology to families who request it. A source in Sen. Schumer’s office told me that support for the law is growing, and that they have received multiple expressions of interest from other members of Congress. Tracking technology might possibly have saved Avonte’s life.
As part of Autism Speaks’ efforts to ensure the safety of the autism community, the organization has awarded $98,000 to Project Lifesaver International. Project Lifesaver serves approximately 18,000 individuals with autism who wear small personal transmitters that emit an individualized locating signal. If an enrolled person with autism wanders from safety, the caregiver notifies their local Project Lifesaver agency and a trained emergency team responds in the wanderer’s area.
Certified Project Lifesaver first responders are given the necessary tools to respond to safety situations involving children and adults with autism. The program trains first responders to understand the behaviors of individuals with autism so they are able to interact with this growing population in an effective and successful manner. Project Lifesaver also includes instruction for families and caregivers on the maintenance of their child’s locating technology and reporting protocol when their loved one is missing.
Additionally, Autism Speaks is working to help educate first responders on how best to engage with individuals on the spectrum. Autism Speaks staff participated in the NYPD’s Autism Seminar hosted at 1 Police Plaza, with over 150 officers in attendance. The event offered two separate panel discussions led by autism resource and service providers, with one panel specifically focused on the needs of young children with autism and another focused on accessing supports for teens and adults with autism.
Autism Speaks staffers presented on both panels and answered questions from attendees with an overall theme of the need to increase access to ongoing educational, community and financial supports and services.
Autism Speaks has partnered with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to address autism wandering incidents. Visit this page to find out how to report an active case of wandering. Find Autism Speaks resources to help prevent wandering here.