The second time he went missing, Branan nearly called the police.
Her son, Joe, has autism — a condition characterized by impaired social behaviors. Nearly half of children with autism wander from safe environments, resulting in accidental deaths or missing persons cases. Due to difficulty with communication and fear of strangers, they might not be able to cooperate with search efforts.
The Hillsborough Police Department responded to Branan’s concerns by organizing the Autism Family & Friends Day, which will take place Saturday, to promote understanding of the disorder.
“We felt that it was an excellent opportunity to reach out more to autism families and show them that they have our support,” said Sr. Cpl. Tereasa King, co-organizer of the event.
Branan reached out to King a year ago to familiarize children with autism in the community with first responders.
“I have been reading in the past year about lots of these kids going missing in the news all over the country,” Branan said.
In the past year, Joe has wandered out alone two to three times, something he had never done before.
When the family goes on vacation, Branan sticks duct tape to her son’s back with her name and number.
“He can say his name, but I don’t know how he would react to a stranger,” she said. “I don’t think he remembers our phone number.”
The event also intends to educate first responders in dealing with individuals with autism.
Lisa Kaylie, board member for the Orange and Chatham County chapter of Autism Society of North Carolina, said individuals with autism can run into trouble when police officers pull them over and the individuals cannot understand their commands.
“It’s a lifelong condition — that’s why it’s extremely important to have the support of law enforcement,” she said. “Kids are cute, but adults can appear scary, so it’s important for the community to understand their situation.”
The event will be a collaboration between the Hillsborough Police Department, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the Orange and Chatham County chapter of Autism Society of North Carolina and the Orange County Department of Environment, Agriculture, Parks and Recreation.
Activities provided will include games for children and free tours of emergency vehicles. There will also be demonstrations of GPS tracking devices and fingerprinting services for easier identification of individuals with autism if they are missing.
Branan said she is worried about Joe entering his adolescent years.
“He’s walking faster and getting bigger, so we have to be really careful,” she said.