They say education is what you remember after you've forgotten what you've learned. What stuck with Officer Jonathan Pruziner from his training on how to search for missing children with autism saved a 7-year-old girl's life: Follow the water.
The little girl known as "Mookie" had bolted from her babysitter that blustery, rainy March day. Officer Pruziner had learned that children on the autism spectrum are often drawn to water, so he drove straight to a pond in the child's Montgomery County, Maryland neighborhood. No sign of her there.
As the hour-long search intensified with a helicopter circling overhead and police dogs tracking her scent on the ground, Pruziner, an Army vet who lost his left leg in an explosion while serving in Iraq, decided to follow the pond’s drainage ditch upstream on foot and see where it led. It led to Mookie, lying near the underground drainage pipe in several inches of water and suffering from severe hypothermia. He scooped up the shivering child, who was nonverbal and making noises, and carried her to safety – just in the nick of time.
"Based on the training, I knew to go to water," said Pruziner, who received a life-saving award for his actions that day. "So I just kind of followed the water.”
Officer Pruziner embraces Mookie’s grateful mom, who was at work when her daughter bolted from the babysitter.
On April 19, 2021, in conjunction with “Autism Awareness Month," The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) will host a free webinar entitled, “How Local Law Enforcement Organizations Can Build an Autism Awareness & Outreach Program.” The presenters, with Montgomery County Police Officer Laurie Reyes and Sgt. Stefan Bjes with from the Addison Police Department in Illinois,. Both are both law-enforcement officers who have received accolades for the autism awareness and outreach programs they have implemented in their local communities.
“It's a super worthwhile training,” said Pruziner, who has found other missing children and credits Reyes’ training. “That's why we do this job – to help people. It gives you the tools to do that.”
Reyes, a Montgomery police officer for 23 years, saw the need for specialized training and outreach when her department began getting more 911 calls for critically missing children and adults. In 2005, she created what is now called the “Montgomery County Police Autism and Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities (IDD), Alzheimer & Dementia Outreach Program.”
Reyes said the spike in calls for missing children with autism like Mookie “snowballed” and coincided with a growing number of children being diagnosed. In a 2020 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 1 in 54 children were identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2016. When Reyes started her program, it was 1 in 150, a number that has steadily shown higher significance in the child population, in part because of better and earlier diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Nearly half of families report that their children with autism will repeatedly wander or bolt from safe environments, according to the journal, Pediatrics. Many of these children will exhibit a diminished sense of fear, making a beeline to things they’re attracted to that could place them in danger – most often bodies of water – but also highways, trains, heavy equipment, firetrucks or roadway signs.
In a recent incident, Reyes said police received a flurry of 911 calls about a teenager with autism standing on heavily traveled I-270 in the middle of the night. Motorists couldn’t help but notice the neon yellow T-shirt he was wearing, emblazoned with a large Montgomery County police badge and the words, “If I am alone Call 911.”
The T-shirts, one of many aids used by Montgomery police, were designed for those children in immediate danger who need help but cannot speak, Reyes said. “Best phone call I ever made,” Reyes said of notifying the boy’s family. She works hard to encourage parents who have children on the autism spectrum to call 911 if they need help. Some are too afraid, believing they’ll be perceived as bad parents who can’t control their children if they keep wandering off.
To the contrary, Reyes understands the enormous stress parents with special needs children face and gives awards to those who do make that call to police, some over and over again. She tells officers to loop back and check on parents later to see how they’re doing to solidify the trust in the community.
But finding and safely recovering a missing child with autism presents unique and difficult challenges. Reyes helped NCMEC develop special search protocols and checklists to help first responders. (https://www.missingkids.org/theissues/autism). Some children will elude or hide from search teams or seek small or tightly enclosed spaces to conceal themselves – or walk for miles. Others can’t respond to those calling their name because they’re non-verbal.
Reyes says she implores officers arriving on a scene to consider, “Could it be autism?” What may look like someone under the influence may, in fact, not be. Officers responding to a “burglary in progress” at a Subway shop found a teenager with autism who had taken keys out of his mother’s purse, thinking he could use them to open the door at Subway and make himself a sandwich, she said.
Learning more about children with autism and how to search for them when they wander from safe environments can truly mean the difference between life and death, Reyes said.
“There were tons of officers on that call,” said Reyes of Pruziner’s success in the search for Mookie. “He saved her life.”
To learn about the outreach efforts of co-presenter Sgt. Stefan Bjes, visit our blog at: https://www.missingkids.org/blog/2020/for-officer-missing-kids-with-autism-hits-home.