“Hi Avonte, it’s mom. Come to the flashing lights, Avonte."
October 18, 2013 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Two weeks ago, 14 year-old Avonte Oquendo was last seen running out the door of his school in Long Island City, New York. Because Avonte has autism and is non-verbal, he was supposed to have one-on-one supervision at all times. Now, an unprecedented citywide search for the boy that includes searching commuter trains and subways and playing his mother's voice out of emergency response vehicles remains underway. posted by roomthreeseventeen (47 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
posted by cavalier at 11:22 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a terrible situation all around. Short of forcing a person at risk to wear a non-removable GPS tracking device, it sounds like there may be no real way to prevent this from happening, especially if one of the key traits of autism is relentless focus. It is particularly heartbreaking to learn that so many are lost to drowning. This can only become more common as our autistic population ages out of close supervision. What a horror.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:38 AM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

This campaign has been very effective in terms of getting people's attention; I'm not sure I know anyone who hasn't heard of Avonte and seen his photo by this point. It seems like they HAVE to find him eventually! Poor kid.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:48 AM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

It is distressing to see those posters all over town. He looks a lot like my own kid.

Coincidentally, I was reading "The Reason I Jump" (written by an autistic teen) and got to the part where he answers "Why do you wander off from home?" His answer: "Simply put, people with autism never, ever feel at ease, wherever we are. Because of this we wander off - or run away - in search of some location where we do feel at ease." and "It came down to this: if I didn't go outside, then I would cease to exist. Why? I can't say, but I had to keep walking, on and on and on... roads speak to us people with autism, and invite us onward... Until someone brings us back home, we don't know what we've done, and then we're as shocked as anyone."
posted by fungible at 11:49 AM on October 18, 2013 [8 favorites]

Hearing his mom's voice on that loudspeaker just made me sob. I hope they find him, whole and well, and soon.
posted by headspace at 11:51 AM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is pretty much my worst nightmare right here.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:15 PM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, the posters are absolutely everywhere, incredible, and everyone I encounter mentions them -- which is a very good thing. I hope someone finds him really really soon, or he finds his way to his mama's voice.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:19 PM on October 18, 2013

What I personally have found really surprising is that..this is not the typical attitude of the NYPD when tasked with missing children, even disabled ones. I'm wondering if this evolved naturally, strings were pulled, or (perhaps cynically) I wonder if it's an attempt to appear like they care.
posted by corb at 12:25 PM on October 18, 2013

corb, I think part of it is that Avonte is unable to speak, but part of it, cynically, is that DOE dropped the ball here. Avonte should not have been by himself.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:29 PM on October 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ahhhh. My cynical side agrees with yours, I think there - that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I wish NYC took missing children - especially missing minority children - this seriously, but the whole "they don't want to be sued for negligence" probably definitely is a factor.
posted by corb at 12:34 PM on October 18, 2013

I've been seeing alerts about Avonte coming across my tumblr feed every day--multiple times--for the last two weeks. I pray this young man is found.

And yes, this totally has the whiff of covering for the school district. At least, to me.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:52 PM on October 18, 2013

If this is a CYA search, huzzah for CYA.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:02 PM on October 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

yea I've been hearing about this kid everywhere. The communication about this does seem unprecendented. Really hope he's found soon. Wouldn't mind being asked out to look out for other missing kids/people on the subway via announcement (there are so many).
posted by sweetkid at 1:37 PM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

From the parent of an child with autism who lives nearby: “The bottom line is that teachers, aids, security, all of them in schools need better training. I work security at a museum and I just can’t believe that someone let this happen. There’s no way you let any child, especially an autistic child, just walk out of school.”

This whole thing is really, really awful and scary and I feel so terribly, terribly badly for Avonte and his family. I do think this is at least partially a CYA thing for the Department of Ed, but it might not be as simple as "the teachers need better training".

When I taught second grade I had multiple kids in the same class who would literally run out the door of the classroom and down the hall. Some of them presented as basically neurotypical (with the caveat that they would take their shoes off and run down the hallway without permission), some were undiagnosed but clearly needed some help (I did what I could to get them support but WOW was it limited by a lot of factors), and some had some pretty intense special needs which were either underdiagnosed or undertreated. They were still in my general education classroom and I've had to spend recess periods with kids on my lap just holding them so they don't run out the door. One of my kids had literally run into the street at the school where he did first grade (they found him wandering around outside) and when he wasn't on medicine I'd need to stand in front of him with my arms out to prevent him from attacking other students. This was how I had to teach math and I wasn't allowed to send him out of the classroom. On a summer program field trip to the zoo he'd run away and gotten lost. I don't know how they found him. This boy was in second grade and by the END of the YEAR even with both time with me in small groups/one-on-one and with a special ed teacher he could not identify the front of a book versus the back when one was handed to him.

I think the Department of Ed should be held accountable for this godawful situation for Avonte and I think that in many ways yeah, they're probably at fault, but I don't think it's just a basic issue of training teachers. There are (in many cases, obviously I don't know all the details here) much bigger systemic problems in terms of how we serve students with differing needs and how we provide guidance and support for them. There are a lot of things in the IDEA that began as really good ideas that now are used as weapons against parents, teachers, and even students and my guess is that the issue here isn't one kid being unsupervised, it's an entire system of teachers given students who need a lot of personal attention and support that no one is getting. This is the worst case, most horrible, most terrifying scenario but there are smaller failures every day, for everyone, when kids are scared or can't learn and teachers are overwhelmed and can't provide for everyone because the astonishing array of needs in the classroom is just too great and I can tell you that in some cases, the miracle is that this doesn't happen more often.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:47 PM on October 18, 2013 [25 favorites]

It's my understanding that the person who let Avonte leave the building was a security guard; she said she saw him walking towards the door and asked him where he was going. He didn't answer. And so....she let him go.

I have to admit - while I understand that "training for teachers" may not be the best and most logical answer in most cases, I'm having a hard time understanding why letting any kid, neurotypical or not, wander out a door at a school is anything but a big mistake.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:55 PM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm having a hard time understanding why letting any kid, neurotypical or not, wander out a door at a school is anything but a big mistake.

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:55 PM on October 18

I'm no doubt very ignorant because I don't have kids, but would they have the legal right to restrain a kid without cause? I mean, I guess I can imagine a couple of situations where I would possibily want my 14-year old kid to be able to leave school unimpeded by school officials.

I wonder if part of the problem is that Avonte wasn't identified to all the security personnel as disabled and a, well, "known flight risk", to borrow the phrase. I would've assumed that all the security guard would have been trained to know those kids on sight, and to sound the alarm if one attempted to leave school grounds unescorted.
posted by magstheaxe at 2:22 PM on October 18, 2013

I have been thinking of and praying for this kid constantly. I can't believe it's been two weeks already and there's nothing- no verified sightings, no video beyond what the school had. So damn tragic. As for the CYA aspect of the search- would the DOE have the power to get the MTA to discontinue track maintenance and have dozens (maybe hundreds) of workers search the entire subway system? That's exactly what the MTA did last week.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:35 PM on October 18, 2013

In our school system kids can't leave without permission, and can't leave without a parent until they are 18. So an 18 year old with a note from home can leave to drive herself to a doctor's appointment, but a 16 year old can't. We don't have security guards, but a 14 year old caught leaving would be stopped. This boy should have been, too.
posted by Biblio at 3:14 PM on October 18, 2013

I'm having a hard time understanding why letting any kid, neurotypical or not, wander out a door at a school is anything but a big mistake.

My middle school and high school weren't locked down at all when I was a kid, and we didn't have any security guards. My (neurotypical, as far as I knew) friends and I would leave campus pretty much every day at lunch. After school and on weekends our parents would let us roam around wherever we wanted on our bikes and skateboards. It's a really different world kids are growing up in these days. I guess all the heightened security will keep the kids off my lawn, at least.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 3:15 PM on October 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

And so....she let him go.

Other reports say she turned him back and then he went out a side door. Did the security guard see him do that? It may be they discovered this later based on surveillance tapes. I read (don't know if it's in one of the articles linked above) that they were still searching the school after Avonte's mother was summoned, which would suggest they didn't know at that point that he'd left the school.

I live in Astoria and can testify the helicopter sweeping has been intense. It's just sickening; so sad and frightening for this poor boy and his family. When I saw the FPP I hoped it was because he had been found. :(

Reports say Avonte functions at a 7 or 8yo level and cannot fend for himself, etc. I wonder what this means in terms of his finding water to drink, or food. If he is holed up hiding somewhere, would he know to find sustenance? I mean, a typical 8yo would be able to do this, but I'm not clear on how the autism plays into the capabilities of a child in a situation like this.
posted by torticat at 3:36 PM on October 18, 2013

I was wondering the same thing. Most 7 or 8yo children can talk, so I have a hard time visualizing what level of function he has.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:04 PM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've worked as an aid with autistic children, and sometimes there's kids that will run no matter what you do. Like a kid who thought it was a great game to run outside, and then dodge anyone who came near him. The only thing that even remotely came close to working was just keeping an eye on him, and holding out toys he liked. But if one blinked, he could be gone down a side hallway, and you could only look and hope he could be found. And of course we Steve allowed to restrain him; we had strictlimits on the amount of time we could spend holding him. For his part, he could easily snatch glasses.

Working with autistic kiss is incredibly hard and exhausting, and often times no progress is made. And the regular administrators don't know, they just don't want their routine disrupted, because they have their regular crises to deal with. So I have a degree of sympathy with the teacher.
posted by happyroach at 4:06 PM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

There is a similar train-loving kid in Boston - for awhile, he seemed to run away every couple of months. Police would issue a public appeal and then he'd always turn up on a train or in a train station somewhere.

In 2011, his parents got him a new LoJack-like device (from, well, LoJack); police so far have been successful in using it to find him.
posted by adamg at 7:20 PM on October 18, 2013

This reminded me of this story from last year about a 9 year old nonverbal autistic boy who went missing in a forest. That one had a happy ending.
posted by southern_sky at 9:24 PM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

i hope this kid is found, i really do. one of the hardest things in the world to figure out is how to let spectrum kids their authority while keeping safe, especially when they wander.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:37 PM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have been hearing the announcements while waiting for the subway almost every day this week. The idea is good, but the execution notsomuch-- it would have been helpful to know his age and where he was last seen. The only visual descriptor in the announcement was what he was wearing.

Still, the MTA finally did something good. I hope it helps and Avonte is reunited with his family soon.
posted by lovelygirl at 9:53 PM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm having a hard time understanding why letting any kid, neurotypical or not, wander out a door at a school is anything but a big mistake.

When things like this happen, it seems like there's this idea that there would be people stopping children from leaving school even if they got away from who was supposed to be watching them, or stopping other people from entering the school -- is this really a thing?

I went with a group to do some school presentations recently, and while we checked in at their offices, there wouldn't have been anything stopping someone from just wandering into the school grounds and through any unlocked doors, and there wasn't a single exit point everyone would have to pass through at any of the schools.

I didn't see any of these security guards people talk about either.

Is all of that really all that standard for schools these days?
posted by yohko at 11:29 PM on October 18, 2013

I appreciate it's an unpopular view, particularly for parents of special needs children, but unless a child can be easily accommodated, I don't believe special needs children should be mainstreamed. I feel it's manifestly unfair to the child because he/she may not be within an environment which facilitates the most beneficial (educational) outcome, the remainder of the students (who may be negatively impacted by disruptive behaviours)...and too further stretches teachers and an already overburdened educational system.

I hope when Avonte is found, he is placed in an environment far more suited to his particular needs.
posted by Nibiru at 12:02 AM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

social isolation leads to anexity. both social anexity and isolation lead to a spike im this kind of behaviour. as well, special ed allows more baseline kids to isolate and bully special ed kids. it makes them less human, if you want this to go better, then perhaps not forcing them away from their peers would be a good way to start.
posted by PinkMoose at 3:55 AM on October 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, social isolation does lead to anxiety and depression, but ultimately, in some cases, their, "peers" are not in mainstream classes/schools - just how successfully could a child such as Avonte (with autism, an inability to verbalise, and quite possibly an intellect which is significantly impaired) interact and socialise with the average, "normal" fourteen year old?

Rhetorical question; the answer is obvious.
posted by Nibiru at 4:35 AM on October 19, 2013

the answer is not obvious, and yr answer suggests you know little.
posted by PinkMoose at 5:48 AM on October 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

let me start again

a) non verbal does not mean that they cannot communicate
b) one of the dangers of american education is that with both disabled and gifted programs, and ongoing standardized testing, forget the social possibilities that public education is supposed to be about--that public education is the first place that we learn to be democratic, that we learn to leave with other people, it is a tragedy that we forget that. Educational outcome is not the ability to do sums, or know how to read, or any of the other faux utlitiarian technocracy that Americans encourage. It is how to be empathic, how to work with others, how to construct networks and realtionships with people.
c) autism is vastly under funded, and autism research that does get funding (see autism speaks, who is qouted in the story) is done to cure or end autism.
d) we fund autism--with respite care, with properly trained teachers, with technologically adaptative devices, and we have less dead kids. (if Avonte was intergrated into the culture of the community, the security guard would have known who he was, would not have let him go)
e) we do not know the answer to that question, becuse the kind of discourse that you keep pressing, is still so mainstream, that it prevents avante from having a voice, which means he ends up burrowing into special interests, which means he ends up missing in new york for three weeks, and even if this wasn't about him--do you really want yr kids educated in the same middle class homogenity that refuses to challenge them at all?
posted by PinkMoose at 6:54 AM on October 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

On the off chance that someone does run into Avonte, what's the best course of action? Is it best to phone the police without approaching or speaking to him, so as not to make him feel startled?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:28 PM on October 19, 2013

They are saying not to approach him, but to follow him and call the police.
posted by torticat at 12:43 PM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

a. I used the term, "an inability to verbalise", not, "an inability to communicate".
b. I'm in Australia (our cultures are very similar). I believe if the focus in schools was more about basic education rather than teaching children, "social possibilities", far fewer would begin their lives as young adults being unable to construct a sentence or create an adequate resume.
c/d. Interest groups have limited funding - there simply isn't enough money to fund research, public education, and too meet every individual's (and their family's) unique needs.
e. No, the discourse I'm engaged in suggests quite the opposite - it doesn't place children such as Avonte in environments which are unable to adequately meet his needs. If it were not for the obsession we appear to have with mainstreaming everyone, Avonte would not currently be in life-threatening danger.
posted by Nibiru at 4:42 PM on October 19, 2013

In response to your question, firstly, I'm not, "middle class". I'm lower (or working) class, and my children attended a school in a lower socioeconomic area. Yes, I wanted them challenged - academically. I didn't want them challenged by having to compete for attention and assistance with special needs children by an overburdened and exhausted teacher.

"Working with autistic kiss is incredibly hard and exhausting, and often times no progress is made. And the regular administrators don't know, they just don't want their routine disrupted, because they have their regular crises to deal with. So I have a degree of sympathy with the teacher."
posted by Nibiru at 6:07 PM on October 19, 2013


Thank you for continuing this discourse. I am sorry for assuming class, and for assuming you being American. As a working class canuck, I understand how that can be frustrating.

I think for context, you need to know that I am on the spectrum, and have one masters degree and am working on a second. i am an academic, and learning formally is something i spend most of my time and money on, it is really important. I appreciate how much you want your children to succeed academically.
I also write professionally, and can construct a sentence quite well. What helped me write a sentence or an argument was the ability to discuss and construct oral arguments. The prioritizing of written language in your statements, suggest that you think that there is only one way to learn or to teach or absorb information. Often mainstreaming does that, but also--and this is important, forcing children into one way of translating, esp. in special ed classes, prevents them from working through the cultural patterns that function best for them, in a Canadian context, it is similar to the problem of residential schools.

i went through private, state, and public schooling through k-9. I was mainstreamed, and set aside.None of those were great. I also understand how you want your best for yr kids, i appreciate that. I am not sure if yr kids are closer to baseline, but I think that a diverse educaitonally body (class, sexuality, race, disability) allows kids to process informaiton, to teach and to learn. Most of the education research thinks this as well.

As well, there is enough funding, but it`s not spent well, and it`s not spent on people with autism, it is cheaper, and saves money in the long term to fund educational care and respite then it does, in this case, spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on police care.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:37 PM on October 19, 2013

I appreciate your position and experience, but please understand they differ vastly from my own. My children attended an extremely large public (government funded) school in which the number of students who actually complete their final year of high school successfully can be counted on one hand. Whether there was enough additional funding available for specialised educational programs for special needs children or no is irrelevant; in practise, the school was understaffed and the teachers were already exhausted and frustrated by just having to attempt to address the needs of a group of children who were disadvantaged by their socioeconomic status.

A teacher spending an inordinate amount of time managing one violent and disruptive child with ADHD meant numerous members of the class didn't receive the assistance and attention they required. One of my daughters was one of them. My husband and I had the financial resources to organise private tutoring; there were others in that class who were not so fortunate.

In a perfect world, every child, special needs, middle and upper class, impoverished or disadvantaged would be provided whatever care, assistance, and consideration required to achieve the best individual educational outcome - but this isn't a perfect world, and sometimes imperfect solutions to complex problems are all we have available at our disposal.
posted by Nibiru at 12:47 AM on October 20, 2013

That was poor classroom management that prevented the kid with ADHD and yr kids from both getting the help they needed. That expereince, perhaps should not be universalized.
posted by PinkMoose at 6:16 AM on October 20, 2013

You misunderstand. That was simply a single example. I'm from a extremely low socioeconomic area and was educated in one, and my children too were born, raised, and educated in another low socioeconomic area across the other side of the country. I have formed this opinion on the basis of my life experiences, that of my children, of my friends, and their children. I've socialised outside my own (socioeconomic) circles so have met and interacted with numerous people with differing backgrounds, but, just for context, I left school at fourteen, and until I was a young adult, I'd never even met anyone with a university degree.

There are countless people with my experiences and opinion, but I imagine you'll stumble across few of them on Metafilter.
posted by Nibiru at 3:41 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can you provide clinical evidence that would suggest that mainstreaming will allow people on the spectrum to be educated in a way that allows them access to univeristy.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:11 PM on October 20, 2013

I'm sorry, I don't understand how your question relates to my position, PinkMoose. It is my position that unless a child with special needs can be easily accommodated, they shouldn't be mainstreamed, as per my initial post and further rationale. As such, are you suggesting I seek clinical evidence in an effort to invalidate my own position?
posted by Nibiru at 12:26 AM on October 21, 2013

i am wondering if you have spent significant time working through the issue, is all.
posted by PinkMoose at 12:42 AM on October 21, 2013

Again, I'm sorry, but your question is nonsensical in terms of both my position and rationale.
posted by Nibiru at 12:52 AM on October 21, 2013

i think that your position might suggest an overwhelming understanding of one side of the issue.
posted by PinkMoose at 1:55 AM on October 21, 2013

I appreciate it's an unpopular view, particularly for parents of special needs children, but unless a child can be easily accommodated, I don't believe special needs children should be mainstreamed. I feel it's manifestly unfair to the child because he/she may not be within an environment which facilitates the most beneficial (educational) outcome, the remainder of the students (who may be negatively impacted by disruptive behaviours)...and too further stretches teachers and an already overburdened educational system.

I think you're focusing on one avenue of what is, in fact, a real problem, but the avenue itself is not the problem.

So, yes - the current focus on "mainstreaming" is poorly serving children. It is poorly serving advanced children who are held back to the average stream. It is poorly serving the slower children who don't get to have attention and instruction on their grade level. It is poorly serving behaviorally disturbed children who don't have instruction and environment more appropriate to them and it is poorly serving children in class with those behaviorally disturbed children whose complaints are ignored. It is being done in the name of "democracy", but it is severely disadvantaging any children other than Joe Average. This is why I personally pulled my kid out of public school.

However, this isn't purely a special needs problem. This is an educational problem with a mainstreaming fad.
posted by corb at 9:47 AM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, public school is lousy at keeping track of even average kids. I will never forget the moment I got a call from another parent, who said my kid, instead of having been sent to afterschool, was roaming the playground looking lost. Apparently the teacher brought her outside, then forgot she existed and went back inside.
posted by corb at 9:50 AM on October 21, 2013

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