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Should We Really Be Tracking Our Children Like Wildlife?

Illustration for article titled Should We Really Be Tracking Our Children Like Wildlife?

Many New Yorkers are still mourning the news that the body of Avonte Oquendo, a non-verbal autistic boy, was found on the banks of the East River. To meet—and partially assuage—the grief, Senator Charles Schumer has an idea: let's put tracking chips on autistic children.

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"Tracking chips" is just a loose term for describing the devices that Schumer and associates think will keep autistic children from getting lost. The device can be worn like a bracelet or attached to clothing or shoelaces, and it would enable parents and law enforcement agencies both to pinpoint a child's location within minutes. Oquendo's mother, Vanessa Fontaine, threw her support behind the idea at an event with Schumer on Sunday, and the senator is now looking for funding.

But is it really a good idea to start tracking our children like wildlife? This is not a new idea. In fact, wearable RFID devices for children have been on the market for nearly a decade. Sure, the obvious pro is that, if the children get lost, they're easier to find. But this clearly raises a host of important issues surrounding privacy and ethics.

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A chief complaint with child-tracking technology is the simple fact that it treats them like animals. There's also often a party in the mix that stands to profit from government-sponsored programs, just like the one Schumer is suggesting. That was the case in California in 2005 when parents protested a student-tracking program at local schools on the grounds that they had little control over who would run the program. They also didn't like the idea that the tracking program was pegged to levels of attendance, a measurement that affects how the school receives its funding. In other words, tracking students meant more tax payer dollars for the participating schools. The same was true for a similar case in Texas in 2012.

Of course, tracking only kids with autism or another handicap changes the equation—and arguably makes things worse, with the implication that autistic children are uniquely helpless and should thus be subject to unending geographical surveillance. This runs a clear risk of further marginalizing those diagnosed as autistic—in effect, imposing their diagnosis on them with a technological Scarlet Letter, a device normally reserved for criminals and exotic wildlife.

Though the specific details of Schumer's plan remain vague, New York's tracking program would be put into place for safety concerns only. It does make you wonder if parents will treat the tracking chips as a crutch, though, and pay less attention to their children. It would be presumptuous to blame all missing children cases on neglectful parents, but you could also see how knowing that a child is being tracked could encourage parents to be a little more loose.

Finally, there's the safety concern. The tracking chips are meant to keep children safe, but if the data were to make it into the wrong hands, bad things could happen. I'm mainly thinking of the outlandish but very possible scenario of a sexual predator with hacking skills using the location information to track down vulnerable victims. If the chips were built securely, this is less of a concern, but hackers seem always to find a way.

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None of this should rule out the possibility of implementing a program to help keep track of autistic or otherwise handicapped children. It should, however, be a reminder that such a program should be designed with these concerns in mind.

Image via Shutterstock / jolly

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DISCUSSION

Adam, as a parent to a moderate to severely autistic child, I think Schumer's idea is fantastic. Let me break down your points one by one.

Moderate to Severe Autism, unlike Asperger's Syndrome, which I have and is very mild in its presentation on the higher ends like mine, is a life threatening neurological disorder. It's not life threatening in the sense of cancer, but in the sense of understanding your environment and the dangers it contains.

But this clearly raises a host of important issues surrounding privacy and ethics.

In the case of severe autism, such as Oquendo has, its coupled with severe mental retardation. I'm not talking about Forest Gump here. I'm talking about this:

As a parent, your only concerned that your child survives to the next day when he is in the hands and care of those that are not his parents. The autistic, in this case, Oquendo, has no concept of what you and I think of as ethics and privacy. His more immediate and higher order need is safety, love and care. A tracking device could have saved his life. He likely walked into the water, not knowing how to swim, not understanding currents and not understanding the concept of depth.

A chief complaint with child-tracking technology is the simple fact that it treats them like animals.

That's a higher order bit than what the situation is here. Animals often times don't get lost, have an instinct to know to stay out of danger. Animals have a fear of danger and what could possibly hurt them. The severely autistic do not, its a core symptom of the disorder. Sure, dogs and cats get run over all the time, but not in the same represented numbers of what would happen with a severely autistic person with no sense of danger or fear.

Of course, tracking only kids with autism or another handicap changes the equation—and arguably makes things worse, with the implication that autistic children are uniquely helpless and should thus be subject to unending geographical surveillance.

Severely autistic children are uniquely helpless. Most can't use the bathroom on their own, wear diapers for most of their lives because they don't have the mental ability to master toileting, smear their own feces on the wall, can't talk or communicate, and have nearly no ability to understand where, what, when and how. They aren't like other disabled children without neurological disabilities. No one is going to put on a tracking device for a kid with CP, without mental retardation. No one is going to put a tracking device on a child in a wheel chair, without severe mental retardation. Autistics with the most severe form, like Oquendo's, are not concerned with stigma. That's a luxury of the high functioning or neurotypicals.

This runs a clear risk of further marginalizing those diagnosed as autistic—in effect, imposing their diagnosis on them with a technological Scarlet Letter, a device normally reserved for criminals and exotic wildlife.

You can't get more marginalized than the severely autistic. It's simply not possible, other than to put them to death as the Nazi's did. Severe autism isn't hidden, it isn't like having other neurological or disabling states of being. Severe autism is like having severe Tourettes, coupled with no ability to speak and severe retardation. Their diagnoses isn't imposed upon them, its who they are. It shapes every facet of every minute of their entire lives and those that care for them. It's not like a shirt they can take off. There is no typical person underneath the autism. They are the severely autistic. The only people that treat the severely autistic as less than human, as non persons, are the same people that would treat them that way whether they were using a safety tracker or not. Many people want our children euthanized. They aren't going to change their opinion on that because they wear a safety tracker.

Finally, there's the safety concern. The tracking chips are meant to keep children safe, but if the data were to make it into the wrong hands, bad things could happen. I'm mainly thinking of the outlandish but very possible scenario of a sexual predator with hacking skills using the location information to track down vulnerable victims. If the chips were built securely, this is less of a concern, but hackers seem always to find a way.

The disabled, include autistics, are always in danger of predators. Its our biggest fear as parents. This isn't exclusive to just to severe autism. There are irresponsible parents in the disability community, though I would say probably less so than the non-disabled community. As a parent to a child with this disorder, and knowing other parents, I would say that we are probably the most vigilant of all parents, even in the disabled community. Its one thing to have lost one's ability to walk, but its an entirely different thing to lose one's mind.

One thing you didn't think of is the ability to give these kids and adults some freedom because currently they have none. How would you like to be locked up in your house all day? Never able to have any independence? You have someone telling you where you can go, what you can do and when you can do it? For your entire life! One of the joys of a safety tracker is the ability to give these folks some freedom. I built a 6 foot privacy wall for my 9 year old son so I could let him play outside, by himself. So he can explore our forested back yard, do things any typical 9 year old boy would want to do. He does have some typical boy traits that I would like him to explore without his father hoovering over him all the time. Well guess what, that wall won't contain him and there is no way I can let him outside without being a constant and irritating presence. However, with a safety tracker, I can let him outside, to wonder, to explore to poke to throw rocks to do whatever he wants to do because he has a safety tracker that alerts me if he tries to climb the fence and get out. He has no fear, he will take off and get hit by a car because he has as much sense of danger in the road as a squirrel.

Like all parents of children like mine and the more severe ones, we love our children, we will care for them the rest of our lives. We will be fearful every time we entrust a stranger with him. We rely upon the good will of strangers, because our children are practically helpless. Our children aren't concerned with stigma. Our children aren't concerned with being marginalized, they are already the most marginalized of all the disabled bar none. They receive little to no sympathy or empathy from strangers. They strike fear in the general public because they don't react typically, present themselves typically or look typical. They have very few freedoms and they have virtually no rights, accomodations and "luxuries" you and I take for granted.

Scarlett Letters, marginalizations and helplessness with strangers is a constant fact of their lives. Safety trackers give them some freedom, help them when they can't help themselves and help their caregivers and parents with some respite which they so dearly need.