Spring 2017

Protecting the Most Vulnerable Among Us by Gene Saunders Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Project Lifesaver International

As a front line law enforcement officer, no doubt, you have seen the following situation play out too many times;

An individual is avoiding eye contact with you or simply being unresponsive to your questions or requests. Your law enforcement training and street wise instincts scream out that this per- son is hiding something, being defiant, and may even pose a threat.

In most instances your instincts are correct in the assumption of danger. It would be a lie if I said I did not have the same conclusions in these types of situations back in my days on the force; my career experience tended to lead me into circumstances that were indeed dangerous, so in order to keep my team and myself safe it was important to quickly assess the threat potential in every situation.

However, such behaviors described above can actually be indicators of something much less harmful to your safety, but significantly more detrimental to that individual’s well-being. The individual, whose actions ap- pear to threaten defiance, may be suffering from a cognitive condition, such as Autism, Alzheimer’s, or some other form of cognitive impairment, and they are simply incapable of comprehending and responding to your requests. This is something I did not learn until later in my career; however, in today’s changing world, and with the dramatic increase in cognitive conditions, it is imperative for law enforcement to understand such conditions and recognize when someone may be suffering from one of those conditions.

Often, these conditions are not visible on the surface; that little boy in the grocery store who just had a sud- den outburst may seem like an undisciplined child throwing a temper tantrum, but he may be the 1 in every 68 children today who is on the autism spectrum. How about that elderly lady walking down the road that appears to be a bit confused? She may just look like a nice old lady on her daily stroll, but she may be among the 5 million U.S. adults who suffer with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

Among many other triggered behaviors, wandering is a significant cause for concern for the families and caregivers of individuals with cognitive conditions. There is a prominent need for establishing safety measures to protect those suffering from autism and Alzheimer’s because these conditions can create a ten- dency for these individuals to wander away from their homes, safe places, or caregivers. Non-cognitive indi- viduals who wander are far more vulnerable and are at a greater risk of injury. According to the National Au- tism Association, 49% of autistic children wander; 40% of individuals with autism are non-verbal, so if they do wander they will be unable to speak out for help; and many of the autistic individuals who wander are attracted immediately to water, making drowning the leading cause of death from wandering.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 6 in 10 Alzheimer’s and dementia patients will wander, and of those about 50% of the individuals, if not found within 24 hours will suffer great injury or death. However, non-cognitive individuals are among the hardest to locate if they are missing; their conditions make it more difficult for search and rescue teams to locate them in a timely manner. In such an instance, a confused Alz- heimer’s patient may not remember who they are, and a non-verbal autistic child would be unable to speak out to the search teams, and in reality it would be more likely that they would recede further into hiding. The dramatic rise in these disorders has made it imperative that proper measures are followed to ensure that first responders are “bringing loved ones home.”

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