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Tampa Tribune Profiles Comments From CARD Director Dr. Karen Berkman

The Tampa Tribune
Published: September 19, 2008


Chris Marino, a 12-year-old identified as being autistic, made headlines recently when he and his father survived the strong ocean current that carried them 10 miles from land and left them treading water for 15 hours. Happily, his story, unlike others about missing individuals, didn't end in heartbreak.

For families of individuals with disabilities, there is great concern that their loved ones will run off or wander away. This doesn't have to happen. There are solutions to track those who run off, and one such solution is beginning in the Tampa Bay area for children with autism and related disabilities.

The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida has partnered with the Tampa Police Department and Project Lifesaver International to offer a program that will quickly locate and return wandering children to their families and caregivers. Not only will the program save lives, it will also save costs. One recent search in Tampa cost $6,000.

By forming partnerships with local law enforcement and public safety organizations, Project Lifesaver deploys specially trained teams with the most reliable technology available to locate children through a personalized tracking device that is worn on a wristband or placed on clothing.

We are proud to support the Tampa Police Department with the purchase of five bracelets and two tracking units complete with training. But in order for the department to be fully functional, officers must raise an additional $18,000. We hope other organizations in the Tampa Bay area will join with us to support the TPD and others concerned with the safety of their loved ones with special needs.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which has already raised donations and received grant money to fund equipment to be used by their office and during searches, will cooperate with police if an emergency occurs.

And this is just the beginning.

More technological advances to help people with disabilities are down the road. A transportation and engineering research team at USF has developed and tested a "Travel Assistant Device" (TAD) software application that enables a cell phone to provide prompts and tracking information, making trips on transit vehicles easier for those with a variety of challenges or impairments, whether cognitive, visual or auditory.

In addition, colleagues in the Department of Aging and Mental Health have adapted sensor technology to detect various movements characteristic of persons with dementia and identify potential wanderers. It is our hope that as more of these devices become available, municipalities will not stint on providing funding to safeguard our most vulnerable family members, friends and neighbors who have special needs.

Karen Berkman, PhD, is director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida

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