A 12-year-old autistic boy who went missing on Jan. 30 before arriving at his Queens school was found because of the quick detective work of school staff.
Staff at P4 at PS 179 in Long Island City sprang into action as soon as they heard that their student had strayed from his mother. Five staff members headed to the city’s subways that they knew the boy loved.
Children with autistic spectrum disorders commonly wander away from safe environments, putting them at risk of injury or death. One recent study found that nearly half of autistic children have engaged in wandering behavior.
This phenonomon drew national attention last fall after Avonte Oquendo, an autistic 14-year-old, wandered away from his Queens school during a transition between classes and was later found dead.
In the recent case at P4 in January, the boy had wandered away from his mother as she was putting his sibling on a school bus in the morning. The mother called police, who informed the boy’s school.
School psychologist Kara Kozlowski knew of the boy’s fascination with trains and stations from her sessions with him. Acting on a hunch, she headed for the subway lines at Jamaica Center.
Kozlowski combed the area, circling the block again and again, wondering, “Where would he go? What would he do?” Then she remembered the boy talking about the Broadway Junction station in East New York, so she headed for Brooklyn.
After staking out the Broadway Junction subway platform for an hour, Koslowski spotted the student running up the stairs to the J train.
It had been five hours since he was reported missing.
“How did you find me?” he asked the psychologist in amazement as she took him by the arm and led him to the police precinct where posters listing him as a missing child were about to go up.
P4 speech therapists Cheryl Mandelbaum and Nicole Thur meanwhile had been walking through all the cars on an R train, the line near the missing student’s home, and physical therapists Michael Wong and Mauricio Gonzalez had looked for him on other subway lines.
“When we received a text that Kara had found our missing student,” Thur said, “we headed back to school with a smile on our faces that he had been found safe and sound.”
Wong said even more school staff had wanted to join the quest. “My other colleagues wanted to go out and search but were unable to do so because they had to stay with their classes.”
In a letter commending the staff, Principal Marcy Berger noted, “The safe return of this child within a couple of hours of his disappearance is a direct tribute to these staff members, a fact omitted in the news broadcasts and press clippings.” She credited “their quick thinking and knowledge of this child” for what turned out to be “a happy outcome.”
Kozlowski was matter-of-fact about the ordeal: “It’s what we do, how we take care of our children and try to keep them safe.”