NEW YORK — The tragic case of Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old with autism who was found dead three months after running away from school, prompted Justice Department officials this week to expand a program to help parents obtain tracking devices for children with autism.
The announcement means that federal grant funds, which already cover tracking devices for adults with Alzheimer’s disease, will also apply to children with autism.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who had requested the funds, said the devices were available immediately for parents who wanted them.
Schumer also has proposed “Avonte’s Law,” a measure that would create a grant program specifically aimed at children with autism. It would allocate $10 million to the Justice Department for the program.
With a tracking device, a parent, teacher or caregiver of a child with autism could notify the company that provided the device. Using GPS technology, the company could dispatch emergency responders to track the wearer.
The devices, which Schumer said would cost about $85 each, can be worn on the wrist or ankle or clipped to clothing.
The idea of tracking devices is not without skeptics. Some parents say their autistic children would yank off any device attached to them or their clothing.
Others express worries about privacy if the government is funding the devices.
Tracking devices already are available through private companies and nonprofit groups. Schumer’s proposal would mark the first time federal funds pay for them.
“We in general support anything that prevents the dangers that come with wandering,” said Ashley Parker, a spokeswoman for the Autism Society of America, based in Bethesda, Md.
However, she said, tracking devices alone are not enough.
Police and other people looking for a person with autism who has wandered away need training so that if they encounter the missing person, they know how to approach him or her, Parker said.
That is especially true when the missing person does not speak.
Parker also said adults or older children with autism might have a legitimate reason, such as abuse, for wanting to get away from their caregivers.