By Karen Zautyk
Families with children — or adults — suffering from autism, or any of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), are the focus of a new outreach effort by the Kearny Police Department.
Sgt. Peter Caltabellotta of the COP (Community Oriented Policing) unit wants Kearnyites to know that a KPD database originally compiled to assist Alzheimer’s patients is being expanded to include the autistic.
That database contains descriptions and photographs of the individuals who have been registered with the department, along with their family’s/caretaker’s contact information. It is all critical to locating and identifying someone who might go missing.
“If someone reports that their mom with Alzheimer’s has walked away from home, we can look up her information and put the details out on the air [to patrol units],” Caltabellotta explained. “Conversely, if we find someone [who is wandering], we can identify them and we’ll have their contact information.”
Now this technology will be assisting the autistic.
It is fairly common knowledge that a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia might wander away from home. (Just last week, an Elizabeth grandmother disappeared from her residence with her two young grandchildren; all of them, luckily, were found safe on the streets of Newark the following day.)
It is less widely known, though, that ASD individuals also wander. There is even a national organization, the Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration, devoted to raising public consciousness of this problem.
Someone who sees a senior citizen on the streets looking lost and confused will likely contact the police. But a younger person, even a child, who may not necessarily look lost, might not catch your attention.
AWAARE’s website, http:// www.awaare.org/, cites a study in Pediatrics magazine indicating that “49% of children with an ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment.”
According to AWAARE: “Mainly, a person with autism will wander to either get to something or away from something. Like dementia, persons with autism gravitate towards items of interest. This could be anything from a road sign they once saw to a neighbor’s pool to a merry-goround in the park.
“Other times, they may want to escape an environment if certain sounds or other sensory input becomes bothersome.”
AWAARE notes that outdoor gatherings are especially problematic, as are schools with unfenced/ungated play areas, and even a visit to a new, unsecured environment, such as a relative’s home.
Last month, Caltabellotta and COP unit cohorts, Officers Jack Grimm and Damon Pein, attended an autism information seminar designed specifically for law enforcement and public safety officers. Held Aug. 19 at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, it was sponsored by the N.J. Police Community Affairs Officers Association.
“They suggested reaching out to the community,” Caltabellotta said. “Our idea was to add autism to our database.”
(By the way, the KPD has been keeping identification info on Alzheimer’s patients before there were computer databases. They used to use the old-fashioned binder method.)
And has the database been needed? Most definitely. Caltabellotta rightfully did not divulge specifics of any cases, but, as an example, he did note that of one Alzheimer’s sufferer who, thanks to the information provided to the police, was found in the Jersey City Medical Center and returned to his home.
Please note that the information is “provided” to the KPD; officers are not out there collecting it. It is up to an individual’s family to contact the cops and ask for their loved one’s inclusion in the database.
If you would like to register someone with an ASD or Alzheimer’s/dementia for the KPD database, you can visit the COP office Monday-Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. (The office is on Forest St., around the corner from police HQ main entrance.) Please bring a recent photograph of the individual.
Along with that photo and description, the database will list contact information, medical information and any special needs the person might have. For example, if the person cannot speak or has difficulty communicating, that can be noted.
“The database can be accessed 24/7 by all patrol officers,” Caltabellotta said. The better to quickly write a happy ending to a missing persons story.
If you would like more information on the database and how it works, contact Caltabellotta or Officer Jack Grimm at 201-997-4800. But remember, you must register in person to have someone added to the database.