STEPHENS COUNTY, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – An hour-and-a-half search effort reunited a Stephens County 3-year-old with his family Thursday night. Stephens County Sheriff Kevin Roach commended the mutual aid of nearby volunteers, state police, and citizens for the swift return and handling of the unique challenges this particular incident presented, as the child has been diagnosed with non-verbal autism.
“I received the call at 7:30 and I knew we were on a timeline with daylight… On the way to the scene, I called state police and requested aircraft with thermal so that we could search after dark,” Roach recalled.
With no resources spared, groups of responders formed a grid search, aided by thermal imaging aerial drones provided by state police and local residents. They located the child in a field about three-quarters of a mile from his home. Roach said it appears the child wandered off, became unfamiliar with his surroundings and got lost.
Any missing child presents a danger and a need for swift action, though this child’s diagnosis called for an altered response. Hardin Simmons University Board Certified Behavior Analyst Ashley Alwine said responders should take the child’s specific needs and social skills into account.
“They’d wanna know any sensitivities that the child has because if the child’s afraid of loud noises or they have sensitivities to bright lights. If they’re screaming the child’s name or, you have sirens and lights from the police cars that’s likely to deter your efforts of locating the child,” Alwine explained.
This approach was implemented in bringing the Stephens County child home. Roach said he kept the family close by and well-informed at all times. Deferring to the parents as to the best method of reaching their child.
“I was prepared for that. I was in real close contact with the family throughout the entire search. So as soon as I received word that they may have located the child one of my other units brought the family to me and I took the family to the child as he was found in the field,” said Roach.
It was a DPS patrol, Roach said, that heard the child crying out in the field. Alwine said utilizing the response methods detailed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, specifically those on the Autism spectrum, is paramount to a more comprehensive search effort.
Conversations with the family can make responders aware of any sensitivities the child or person may have, such as an aversion to loud noises or bright lights, that might deter them and impede their rescue. Also keeping in mind any special interests they have such as trains, nature, or bodies of water, that they might be attracted to and searching in those areas.
“It sounds like the sheriff took into account that child’s specific needs which is very important for a child on the spectrum because no two children on the spectrum are the same,” shared Alwine.
This child like many others on the spectrum is diagnosed as non-verbal. Meaning even if they were to come in contact with someone while lost, they may not be able to communicate their needs or situation. Alwine shared it is important to know a person’s communication methods as well and ensure that anyone who finds them is able to effectively converse.
The child was reunited with his family immediately after being found. He was taken to an ambulance that was waiting on a nearby highway. He was medically cleared and Roach shared the child suffered no injury during the hour and a half he was missing.