By now we use only his first name: Avonte. Last Tuesday afternoon, a friend texted me to ask about the whether a snowstorm had hit us yet. I texted back that we had three or four inches on the ground already, that I was worried about Martin getting home from school, and that I could not stop crying. “They just confirmed that it’s Avonte,” I wrote, to explain. The friend and I had never discussed the matter before. Still, she knew what I meant.
If you live outside the New York area, maybe you don’t know. He was Avonte Oquendo, he was 14 years old, he had autism, and he was nonverbal. On October 4, 2013, around midday, he exited his public school in Queens’s Long Island City neighborhood, alone, and vanished.
More than three months later, on January 16, a human arm and legs and a sneaker were found in College Point, Queens, along the shore of the Whitestone Bay. Over the next few days, divers found a second arm, and teeth, and clothes that looked like Avonte’s, and finally a skull.
Last Tuesday, five days after the first remains were found, DNA confirmed what no one had wanted to admit. Avonte was never coming home.
Avonte’s special-education school “shared space” with both a mainstream high school and a mainstream middle school. This is a common practice in New York City, whereby entirely separate schools, each with its own administration and faculty and student body, operate within one building. The students intermingle in common spaces; an adult or fellow student who saw a teenage boy slip out of a building full of typically developing kids might have no reason to realize the gravity of what transpired.
None of the administrators or staff at Avonte’s school had passwords to access the security footage that showed him leaving through an unattended, unlocked side door. The school officials apparently believed for some time that Avonte, who was unaccompanied by any aide, was hiding somewhere in the multi-school building. An hour passed before anyone notified the police or Avonte’s family.
Once the police were notified, they began duly searching. Yet, as far as I can tell, there was no immediate, massive effort to put eight million New Yorkers on the lookout. I am a constant media consumer, listening to the radio and checking bulletins throughout the day. I found out from a Facebook post that Avonte had disappeared. I didn’t see it on the news until hours later. Days passed before “missing” posters were widespread. A week-and-a-half passed before the search expanded to New Jersey and Long Island, despite Avonte’s known fascination with trains.
A red tent in front of Avonte’s school served as headquarters for a volunteer search effort, led by Avonte’s family. At least one member of his family was in that tent 24 hours per day. Nothing helped. Their beautiful, vulnerable child was just gone.
For me, Avonte has become a symbol of the reality—and with every day, I believe more that it is a reality, not a notion or a possibility—that our society isn’t going to care about autism until it’s too late.
Avonte should never have been unsupervised in a building with unguarded doors. The instant he slipped outside, the police should have known. Everyone should have known. We have the AMBER Alert™ program to recover abducted children. We have no corresponding program for the safety of missing persons on the spectrum, despite the tendency of many to wander or bolt. Avonte is gone. We’re left slapping our foreheads and saying, “Gosh, we should have done more to prevent that.”
Autism rates are exploding. The increase isn’t due to “greater awareness and diagnosis”; there are more and more cases across the spectrum, not just on the high-functioning end where diagnosis might have been an issue in years past.
Some other numbers increasing concurrently are chemicals, antibiotics, GMO’s, environmental toxins, electromagnetic fields, radio waves, and the number of recommended childhood vaccinations. (Yes, I believe vaccinations are connected with autoimmune disorders like those underlying autism. Excoriate me.) Is any one of these increases causing the rise in autism rates? Are all of them together? I don’t know.
I would like to think that one day, I hope not too far in the future, we’re going to start getting some answers, but probably not. There doesn’t seem to be much funding available for studying topics like autism rates in vaccinated versus unvaccinated populations, or the effect of electromagnetic fields on synapses in developing brains, or whether pesticides harm beneficial bacteria in the gut.
We’ll wait until the autism rate is one in 10 boys, or one in five, or one in two, and then we’ll say, “Gosh, we should have done more to prevent that.”
I’m sorry, Avonte. I’m sorry, Avonte’s family. We let you down. Every one of us. We let you down.
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