In 2005, a policeman in Orange County spotted a 13-year-old autistic boy walking on railroad tracks. Louie Perales, whose autism prevented him from speaking, had wandered off from home and was walking on the tracks as a freight train barreled toward him. Luckily, the police officer was able to pull the teenager off of the tracks before the train hit him, and Louie returned home unharmed.
Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. In June of 2006, a 7-year-old autistic boy drowned to death in a closed city swimming pool in Baltimore when he wandered off from his elementary school and jumped in.
With such risks, some may wonder why the Allens took their son on a hike in the mountains in the first place, but they feel going out in nature is not only good for their son's development but it is an environment where he thrives.
"Jacob loves the outdoors," his mother said. "Jacob's behaviors have, I think, moderated over the years. One reason is, I think, because we do get him out so much. And he's learned many, many things from being outdoors -- riding bikes, he's learned about dangers, his body. ... That may actually be his place of choice. Exactly where he functions best."
To families like the Allens, the risks associated with such activities might well be worth taking. But to lessen the chance of losing a child, police forces in at least 42 states have implemented a program that assists them in finding autistic children and other people with special needs who go missing.
The program, called "Project Lifesaver," allows parents to register their children and has them wear a battery-operated radio wrist transmitter. The transmitter emits a silent tracking signal every 24 hours that police officers can track if a child is reported missing.
New Jersey Sheriff Leo McGuire believes that with the technology, the Allens could have found their child in minutes instead of days.
"We would have been able to bring that kid home sooner than four days," McGuire said. "Instead of looking for a needle in the haystack, you have a beacon saying 'find me, find me.'"
The Allens say they will take more precautions with their son on their next hike. They plan to bring someone along younger than themselves who can keep up when their boy -- who loves nature -- charges ahead.