Workshop focuses on safety for people with autism

By Jennifer Ortiz
Staff Writer

HOWELL – Cristy Mangano of Howell felt compelled to do something after she read about an autistic 5-year-old Pennsylvania boy who was found dead in a canal after he wandered away from a relative’s home during a New Year’s Eve party in Allentown, Pa.

Mangano is the mother of a child with autism and she organized a workshop that focused on keeping children and adults who have developmental disabilities safe.

On Jan. 26, Gary Weitzen, the executive director of Parents of Autistic Children (POAC), spoke to an audience at the Howell Library on the topic of “Hidden Dangers – Keeping Children and Adults with Developmental Disabilities Safe.”

Weitzen described a time when his autistic son, Chris, went missing. Weitzen said his wife had just come out the shower when their 5-year-old nonverbal son ran off; the only trace of him was a door he left wide open. At the time, the couple had a 3-year-old child and a 1-year-old child as well.

“He (Chris) didn’t know his name and never came to us … at that time,” Weitzen said.

He said his wife called 911, locked the other two children in the home and ran to a nearby lake where she found Chris in the middle of the water.

“She jumps in the water, swims to him, he grabs her around the neck and she starts swimming doggy paddle, going under, choking on the water. This was not a pretty lake; it was a black murky lake … (Autistic individuals) don’t care, water is water,” Weitzen said.

As it turned out, a police sergeant lived a few houses away from the lake and heard screaming. He ran to the lake and saved Weitzen’s wife and son.

“If he had not been there at that moment, my son and wife would have died. Seven days later, a 9-year-old autistic boy drowned in Freehold. This happens all the time. The No. 1 cause of death for individuals with autism is drowning,” Weitzen said.

He explained that many autistic individuals tend to have an attraction to water and that is why he believes everyone who has a disability should learn how to swim. Weitzen said POAC sponsors swim parties that are free and open to people who have a disability.

He described a program known as Project Lifesaver and explained that individuals who are enrolled in Project Lifesaver wear a small transmitter around their wrist or ankle. If a person goes missing, the transmitter emits an individualized tracking signal and the individual’s caregiver can notify a local Project Lifesaver agency. A trained emergency team will respond to search for the missing person.

“We have to get the message out. What did not make news about (an autistic teen from New York who left school and whose body was later found in the East River) is that it was the third time he got out. Worst case scenario, with Project Lifesaver they would find his body immediately, not four months later. I would love to see every school have an information session about this on Back to School Night,” Weitzen said.

Weitzen said children who have autism and other development disabilities seek emergency room care at twice the rate of their typical development peers. He recommends the installation of door alarms and surge protectors, mounting book cases to a wall and adding corner protection to furniture in the home.

He suggested lowering a home’s hot water heater to 120 degrees from the standard 125 degrees, saying, “120 degree water takes 10 minutes to burn skin; it takes two minutes to burn skin at 125 degrees.”

Weitzen said some individuals who have autism may end up in jail on charges of committing inappropriate sexual behavior or resisting arrest when interacting with a police officer. He said it is important to teach autistic individuals about sex and about how to interact with a police officer.

“Sex education starts in preschool for your 5-year-old. Teach them they cannot take off their clothes and that people cannot touch them. Boy, girl, don’t touch, that’s it and then move up,” he said.

Fire safety is another important consideration. Weitzen said that several years ago in Old Bridge, there was a house fire in which a 21-year-old male with autism was rescued, along with his mom and a sibling.

The autistic young man “ran back into the house, went to bathroom, burned alive and died. They had already saved him. The only safe place for a child (during that type of incident) is in back of a police car,” he said.

Mangano said she believes the workshop brought awareness to the community regarding this topic.

“I think the turnout was good. I believe 35 people were in attendance and that was with short notice. I hope to have Gary back with other workshops for our special needs community. The more education that is out there, the better,” Mangano said.

For more information, parents may visit www.poac.net.

POAC will be sponsoring events in several municipalities this spring and Weitzen asked those in attendance to support the events. For more information, visit www.poacwalk.org, call 732-785-1099 or email info@poac.net