Protecting children with autism through the Travis Alert Act

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It’s a day Threasa and Darren King will never forget. Shortly after moving to their new home in Wapato, their then-6-year-old son, Travis, wandered away from the house. In a 2016 Yakima Herald-Republic article, Threasa described the moment she realized Travis was gone “like [her] feet were in concrete.” He was eventually found, thankfully unharmed, in an irrigation ditch near their property.

Leglislators and advocates gather in the Rotunda for the Honoring Indiviuals with Autism event, April 5, 2017.

The incident got the Kings thinking about what would happen to Travis if tragedy ever struck and they weren’t around to care for their son. Having previously served as volunteer firefighters, the Kings wanted to find a way to alert first responders of the presence of an individual with autism at the scene of an emergency, and to help them properly tend to persons with special needs. The Kings started by painting a blue jigsaw puzzle piece – a symbol commonly used for autism awareness – on the side of their mailbox to inform first responders an individual with autism may be present. A photo of the mailbox was shared on Facebook, garnering likes and support from tens of thousands of people, which led the Kings to contact their state representative, Goldendale’s Gina McCabe, to see if legislation could be crafted to designate the symbol as an official alert.

The road to the Travis Alert Act

After the Kings reached out to her in 2015, McCabe got right to work assembling a group of parents, first responders, police and others to discuss the idea of creating an alert system first responders could easily recognize. From those meetings and others stemmed several priorities the bill had to address:

Travis King (center) and his mom, Threasa, testify in support of the Travis Alert Act in front of the House Judiciary Committee on January 13, 2016

  • The system had to encompass all special needs and could not be exclusive to individuals with autism;
  • Existing procedures employed by first responders must be reviewed and, if necessary, a new training program must be created to better instruct first responders how to care for individuals with varying needs and disabilities; and
  • Submitting information to the Enhanced 911 program pertaining to an individual’s disability must be optional.

McCabe introduced the bill at the beginning of the 2016 session, but the legislation never cleared the Senate. Then, in 2017, she reintroduced the bill. After several committee hearings and powerful testimony from the King family and Travis, himself, the bill passed the Legislature and was signed into law.

House Bill 1258, otherwise known as the Travis Alert Act, assesses the resources necessary to improve the Enhanced 911 program so information pertaining to an individual’s disability or special need can be available to first responders before they arrive to the scene of an emergency. It also requires the state Department of Health — in concert with other agencies — to review existing procedures and create a training program for first responders, providing instruction for how to best respond to emergencies involving persons with special needs.

“[The Travis Alert Act] is going to give me peace of mind when Travis is older,” said Threasa the day the governor signed House Bill 1258 into law. “I know this law will help him when I’m no longer around.”

The Travis Alert Act took effect July 23, 2017.