On Patriots Day, Monday, April 21, 2014, while most people spent the day either attending or watching the Boston Marathon, Sarah White and her 10 year-old son, Taylor, who is autistic, chose to spend the day at Millennium Park in West Roxbury. According to Mrs. White, an otherwise beautiful day took a turn for the worse when her son, who has a history for running away, took off running without notice or notification as they prepared to leave the park. Unable to keep up with or catch up to her son as he bolted away from her, Mrs. White immediately called 9-1-1. As she mentions in her letter (see below), kids with autism are inexplicably attracted to or drawn to bodies of water. Thankfully, the officers who responded were aware of that information and a young boy’s life may have been saved because of it. The enclosed letter of appreciation recently arrived and found its way to the desk of Boston Police Commissioner William Evans:
Dear Commissioner Evans,
I am writing to tell you of about the excellent response of three Boston Police Officers from West Roxbury’s District E-5 during a recent incident involving my son Taylor who is 10 years-old and diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I want to specifically thank the police officers who responded: Officer Gibbs, Officer Lee and Officer O’Neil.
My son Taylor, like many children with autism, has severe sensory sensitivity, language & developmental delay and a history for bolting/wandering behavior. Because of his bolting behavior, he is enrolled in the Lo-Jack Safety net program and wears a Lo-Jack tracking bracelet on his ankle 24/7.
Wandering/bolting behavior affects about 49% of children with autism and is a very serious, challenging, unpredictable and extremely unsafe behavior. Autism wandering which is also called “eloping” can sometimes be triggered by sensory related stress leading to a fight or flight response as they try to escape the source of the stress. Children with autism are also strongly drawn to the water although it is not clear why. Sadly many of our children with autism have wandered off and drowned.
On April 21, 2014, while many citizens were enjoying a beautiful, sunny day at the Boston Marathon, I was out for a short walk with my son Taylor at Millennium Park in West Roxbury along a nature trail that runs along the Charles River. Millennium Park and the land surrounding it encompasses a huge area of parkland, trails, woods, high brush, and is surrounded by acres and acres of wetlands that stretch out along the Charles River. There are railroad tracks nearby.
As we were walking back to my car together, my son suddenly and without warning bolted from me and sprinted up the side of the hill toward the soccer field at the top of Millennium Park. This is a high, fairly steep slope and not easy to run up however my son is very fast and he ran up in a matter of seconds.
I called to him to stop running and I began climbing the slope but as I was approaching the top my son spotted me climbing up and took off running again. By the time I made it to the soccer field at the top, he was out of sight. I looked in every direction but did not see him anywhere. I proceeded toward the playground area thinking that he may have run in that direction. As I was heading there, I dialed 911 and was put through to District E-5 in West Roxbury. I gave the dispatcher my location and description of my son. I told them I would standby at the playground area until the police arrived.
I waited by the playground and within minutes, I saw a police vehicle pull up. I met Officer Gibbs who took down more details about my son. The problem was I had no idea which direction my son ran too and the area is vast. Officer Gibbs took down my son’s Lo-Jack Safety net ID information and his physical description and set off to look for him.
I also continued to look for my son as I was heading back toward my vehicle. Within minutes, I received a call on my cell phone from Officer Gibbs saying they had located my son in a swampy area on the other side of the park not far from the canoe launch area. Officer Gibbs took me over to where my son was. When the officers found him, he was knee to thigh deep in muddy water and his pants and shoes were muddy and soaked. Officers Lee and O’Neil were standing with my son whom they had pulled out of a swamp.
As I mentioned, children with autism are highly prone to wandering/bolting and are very drawn to the water so immediate response is critical. If it wasn't for the quick thinking of these officers who knew to look near water/wetland areas of the park, I shudder to think what might have happened had they not found him in time. I think this situation could have easily escalated into a much broader search and rescue given the size of the area and the terrain. Fortunately, this was prevented due to the actions of Officer Gibbs, Officer Lee and Officer O'Neil who found my son Taylor and were able to return him safely to me. With the exception of a few scratches, my son was fine.
I want you to know that as a parent of a special needs child, I greatly appreciate the assistance of these three officers and of the Boston Police. I wanted to bring to your attention their lifesaving actions (literally) on a day when most public attention was on the Marathon. Today, 1 in 42 American boys and 1 in 68 of our children have autism and as a parent of one of those children, I am extremely grateful to the Boston Police for their quick thinking, rapid response, professionalism and for keeping our kids with autism safe.
POSTSCRIPT: After reading Mrs. White’s letter, BPDNews reached out to Officer Gibbs to get his reaction. After reviewing the letter, Officer Gibbs offered the following: “I heard that Mrs. White wrote a letter and I just want her to know that she didn’t have to do it. We’re all parents and we all knew and could relate to what she was going through. But, the letter means a lot. She didn’t have to do it but the fact that she took the time to write it means a lot to me and my fellow officers and we’re grateful that we were able to help. I have to say it felt great to find him pull him out of the water. Getting there and being able to help felt great.”