Vol. 80, No. 1Cover stories

Police officer with dog on a leash in the forest.

Lost and found

Searching for people with autism

The RCMP's Police Dog Services are often called out to missing persons cases, especially when it involves a child or adult on the autism spectrum. Credit: Courtesy of Sgt. Michel Litalien, RCMP


When the RCMP is called to find a missing person, it becomes an all-hands-on-deck situation very quickly. The response is further amplified when that missing person is distraught, suffering from mental health issues, or has a developmental disorder such as autism.

People on the autism spectrum often have a hard time communicating and interacting with other people, requiring a different approach from police. Perseverance, patience and understanding are key for front-line officers responding to these unique, time-sensitive calls.

A frantic search

In most missing persons cases, the RCMP's Police Dog Services (PDS) are the first to respond.

"It's our specialty to deal with a lot of different people," says Sgt. Michel Litalien, co-ordinator of New Brunswick's PDS. "You get some people who don't want to be found, some who will be crying and some who won't respond to you. But they can't hide from a dog."

Last summer, Litalien and his police dog Tech were called out around 10 p.m. one rainy night to search for a missing 19-year-old non-verbal woman with autism in a rural area near Fredericton, N.B. She had gone out to play on her family's trampoline, but when her parents called for her, she was gone.

The woman's father frantically searched neighbouring properties. By the time Litalien arrived on scene, his police dog had trouble picking up the scent of the missing woman because the father's scent was everywhere. To try to find a lead, he decided to walk through the woods while his dog searched off-leash.

"Finally we picked up her scent on an overgrown trail," says Litalien. "I hooked up my dog to a 20-foot tracking line, almost like a fishing line, and we started tracking."

First they found one of her shoes, then another. They made their way across a beaver dam and finally, just after 1:30 a.m., Litalien spotted her through the trees, clutching a blanket.

"My dog was very excited to find her, he kept trying to take her blanket," says Litalien. "It was a challenge, but I had to stay calm so I wouldn't alarm the girl."

Litalien began walking carefully backwards, holding his dog while coaxing the girl back over the slippery beaver dam. Then, he radioed other officers who met them halfway in the woods.

"I just held her hand, that's all I did, and walked back," he says. "To work four to five hours on a call and have it pay off — it's a good feeling. We got her back to her parents safe and sound."

Through the swamp

That same summer a few hours away in Riverview, N.B., Cst. Chris Plomp and police dog handler Cst. Marc-André Alain were called out to a similar case. A non-verbal nine-year-old girl with autism had gone missing.

The girl's family had been gardening on their rural property when she disappeared with her butterfly net. When Plomp and Alain arrived on scene, Alain's police dog, Cash, immediately picked up the scent and led the officers into the forest.

"It was thick bush," says Alain. "Normally people follow trails or animal tracks, but she was breaking through untouched bush. She didn't stop when most people would have."

They continued, following the police dog as it took them deeper and deeper into the woods. Finally, after walking almost five kilometres, they heard a noise.

"Close to the water, we heard squealing and crying," says Alain. "I started walking through this swamp area with water up to my shoulders. I don't know how she made it through, but she did."

Then, they spotted her standing on a beaver dam. She was soaked from head to toe.

"I knew she was non-verbal so I just said, 'hey, we're here to help you, come towards me,' " says Alain. "She came closer and I was able to grab her, put her over my shoulders and introduce her to my dog."

Plomp radioed other RCMP officers and carried the girl back out of the woods with Alain and his dog. They met up with officers at a maple sugar shack nearby, and got a ride back to the girl's home.

"I talked to her on the way out and kept the tone light, like how I would talk to my own kids," says Plomp. "I didn't want to make her feel bad. You want to make sure all kids keep a positive association with the police."

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