Tres Kiernan, 10, sometimes wanders off. He’s left his parents while shopping to go look for a book he wanted to read. A few times when younger he walked home from school.
Tres was diagnosed with autism at 3 -years old. Like many children on the spectrum, he lacked impulse control and the understanding that something could happen to him when he’s alone.
If he’d gotten lost, he wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone who he was or where he lives. He was nonverbal, except for when he repeated others, a symptom known as echolalia.
Tres can communicate better now, but it’s still a concern, his mother Renee said.
A few years ago, Renee researched what she could do in case Tres was ever lost. She learned about Project Lifesaver, a national program that provides wristband tracking devices to those who are at-risk for wandering off.
It’s primarily used by those with autism or Alzheimer’s, but also by people with down syndrome or cognitive brain injuries, said Kevin Griger, Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office captain. And not everyone with those conditions needs a wristband. Renee’s youngest son, Asher, 6, also has autism but doesn’t wear a wristband because he doesn’t wander off.
Sarpy County adopted the program in 2008 after Sarpy County Sheriff Jeff Davis’ mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After learning more about the disease, he was concerned about his mother or others with it wandering off, Griger said.
Griger started the county’s program and helped get police departments in Papillion, La Vista and Bellevue involved.
Sarpy County is the only county in Nebraska that offers Project Lifesaver.
Those on the program are given a waterproof wristband transmitter that resembles the shape of a watch. Each transmitter has a radio frequency that can be tuned into and traced with a radio receiver.
Griger said some children will wear the transmitter around their ankles so it’s out of sight.
Every day, Tres wears a waterproof watch on right wrist, and his “special watch,” or transmitter, on his left.
“I keep it on 24/7, 356,” Tres said.
If a person on the program is missing, first responders go to the last known location, provided by friends and family, and begin a search.
They first look without the receiver in that location. Most of the time the individual is found. If not, everyone trained on the equipment from the sheriff’s office and the police departments will follow the radio frequency to locate the individual.
Only three searches have been conducted in Sarpy County using this technology, Griger said, all of which were successful
One deputy or officer is assigned to each person on the program. They visit every two months to replace the transmitter’s battery.
Tres said he used to be really scared of deputies and officers, but through this he’s been able to learn they’re there to help.
“They’ll turn on their lights for him so that if he ever was lost and he saw the lights, it wouldn’t be scary and he wouldn’t run away,” Renee said.
About 60 people in the county are on program, and Griger estimates about 80 percent of those are autistic children.
“We would take as many people as we can get,” Griger said.
Each transmitter costs $300, however families in Sarpy County receive it at no cost to them. The sheriff’s office funds this program through donations and grants from the Midlands Community Foundation. If needed, Griger said money from their Safety Training Option Program can be used.
Though the program can be a lifesaver for some, the transmitters don’t work for everyone, Griger said.
Adults have the right to refuse to wear the wristband and will sometimes cut it off. And, as many with autism display symptoms of sensory processing disorder, some autistic children cannot handle the feeling of wearing the wristband.
Geiger said those cases, however, are few.
When it does work out, he said it can help ensure families that their loved-ones are safe.
“It doesn’t completely eliminate the responsibility of the caregiver, but it alleviates a lot of the nervousness they have, because there is a backup system in place,” Griger said.
With Tres wearing a transmitter, Renee said she feels more comfortable when he walks his three-legged service dog, Remi, around the neighborhood.
Those interested in participating in Project Life should email email@example.com.