PITTSBURG -- As a BART station agent, John Buitrago is no stranger to missing person reports. But when he heard from a BART police dispatch that a 24-year-old autistic man had become separated from a group outing while on the transit system, it hit home.
Buitrago, who has a 10-year-old autistic daughter, was on duty at the Pittsburg-Bay Point BART station when the May 7 incident occurred. Ben Harrigan did not get off the train at the Walnut Creek station with the group returning from an Oakland A's game. Buitrago went outside to check the busy bus area and spotted a man who was nervously pacing.
After asking his name and determining he was the missing man, Buitrago walked with Harrigan into the station and had him sit in a chair outside the booth while waiting for the event coordinator to arrive.
"You don't really want to confine (someone) with autism and keep him in a place where he is confined. I thought it would it would be better if he was outside the booth, and he was comfortable. All this comes with dealing with autism everyday," said Buitrago, a 49-year-old Martinez resident.
The young man's physical demeanor was a signal, said Buitrago, who has worked as a station agent for 16 years.
"Most autistic children are never still ... I made contact with him and he responded. I asked if his name was Ben. He nodded. Then I told him his mother was looking for him," recalled the BART agent.
"I noticed the I.D. bracelet so I was able to confirm that was the gentleman we were looking for," said Buitrago, who then contacted BART police. "A child who has autism, they aren't going to walk up to someone and say, 'I need your help. He deserves every accolade," said Harrigan's mother, Stephanie Jacob. "Mr. Buitrago found him and recognized this was a guy with special needs. I was so astounded and amazed and eternally grateful that he happened to be on duty and found him."
When Jacob first learned that her son had not gotten off with the group, she said, "I was terrified. Somehow he got separated from his group coming back from the A's game ... He is nonverbal and does not ask for help, does not talk much."
Jill Escher, board president of the Autism Society of the San Francisco Bay Area, praised the agent's actions. "We are so fortunate that the agent was alert enough to see that this person was in need of help and this person has autism and there really was a need for some kind of intervention. These incidents where people with autism get separated, it's very common and unfortunately, they commonly end in tragedy."
While some people with autism will have physically different behaviors, that is not always the case, she said.
Escher advised that if you suspect someone is autistic and may be lost, call 911 right away and see if you can keep an eye on that person. "These people are harmless. I think you should not be shy about asking if someone is looking lost. Ask 'are you lost, do you need help?' And if they don't respond, I would say that's not a sign that they are ignoring you, but maybe they are not capable of a response ... We cannot be passive in the face of someone with autism who needs help."
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