The Search for our Beloved Avonte
Danny Oquendo’s moving story comes to Autism Speaks through board member Gary Mayerson, who has remained in touch with Danny and, most recently, has been actively supporting Danny in his quest to go to law school so that he too will have the opportunity to represent students with autism and other special needs. We at Autism Speaks applaud Danny’s determination to transform a negative into a positive. The New York Daily News and WCBS featured Danny's message to the Big Apple.
New York City; the City of Dreams. With a reputation for being the hardest place on Earth to succeed, it is frequently described as a cold, unforgiving, cut-throat Metropolis. New Yorkers are labeled as rude, impatient, aggressive, and unsympathetic. I’m writing to tell you that this reputation the rest of the world assumes is far from the truth. Although the daily New York experience may feel like one of isolation amongst crowds, any true New Yorker will tell you that when it matters most, this city comes together in larger numbers than any other community on the planet as proven after the tragedy of 9/11. This tendency for New Yorkers to come together also held true during the city-wide search for my younger brother, Avonte Oquendo.
Avonte went missing last October from his school in Long Island City, New York. While transitioning between classes in the middle of the school day, my brother Avonte, a non-verbal 14-year-old boy who suffered from a developmental disorder called autism, was able to run out of the building undetected. Generally speaking, children that suffer from autism have issues in brain development that are often characterized by difficulties in communication (both verbal and non-verbal), repetitive behaviors, and problems with social interaction. They are also known to be runners and often flee from authority, teachers, friends, and even family - a behavior that makes it imperative that some be supervised 24 hours a day. For this reason, special needs staff, both professional and paraprofessional are required to supervise them at all times.
While the details of the events that transpired are not 100% known, on the particular day that Avonte went missing, for whatever the reason, Avonte was not supervised. His ability to put a smile on the faces of those around him was only rivaled by his tendency to run - and run he did. He sprinted straight out of one of the unlocked exit doors of the school only to be spotted by a surveillance camera and a security guard. The guard claims to have told him to stop, unaware that Avonte did not have the ability to communicate verbally. On any other day it might have been safe to assume this was just an unruly teen attempting to play hooky from school. This turned out to be an assumption that will haunt my family for decades to come.
Our biggest fear was escalating. Picture in your mind having a loved one who does not possess the ability to communicate effectively. Now imagine this loved one lost in the biggest city in the world, alone, cold, hungry, afraid or worse. How you’re feeling right now is just a fraction of the pain we endured for the months following Avonte’s disappearance. Not knowing whether we would see our beloved Avonte again ate away our souls. Every minute we spent in the dark about his whereabouts felt like years of torture. With our backs against the wall we knew we could not sit back and do nothing in hopes that my brother would eventually be found by the New York Police Department. We recognized that we had to be proactive and do everything within our power to find him.
Overcome with grief and hopelessness, there was only one place we could turn to for help, the people of New York City. While Avonte’s mother and the family attorney led the media campaign to spread awareness about his disappearance, I opted to utilize my skillset and gather volunteers that could personally help with the search here in New York. In an attempt to reach out to as many people as possible, I asked the social media-sphere for help. I took our story to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, pleading for the community to join my family at Avonte’s Long Island City school where he was last seen on that heartbreaking October day. The first few days following his disappearance were very grim. We did not sleep, we barely ate and we felt we had nowhere to turn. With only a small number of volunteers there was no way we could possibly search the entire city.
What happened next was one of the most inspiring events to ever occur in my lifetime. As word spread through social networks thanks to shared posts and retweets we began to see massive groups of volunteers coming from every corner of the tri-state area just to help us find our beloved Avonte. Word of his disappearance spread like wildfire and before we knew it there were masses of sympathetic volunteers ready to do anything in their power to aid us in our search. We went from a small family searching night and day for our loved one to a large operation with thousands of volunteers ready and willing to help in every possible way. We were given supplies, tents, food, flyers and moral support from strangers that never even had the opportunity to meet Avonte. The community came together for a common cause in such an unparalleled way that it renewed my faith in the kindness of humanity. The people of New York responded to our anguish with a tremendous amount of support and vigilance. What was even more inspiring was that every volunteer I had the opportunity of meeting acted as if Avonte was their own flesh and blood. It turns out that before it was all said and done Avonte did indeed become the beloved son of the city. His story touched everyone’s heart and everyone wanted to ensure that he was found safe and sound.
His disappearance sparked a city-wide search and an autism awareness campaign came right along with it. You could spot flyers plastered all over the city with Avonte’s face. Every subway stop, every public transportation station, and nearly every store front was covered with ‘Missing Child’ posters. Thanks to our large numbers of volunteers, we had the ability to disperse teams of people into every corner of NYC equipped with flyers, flashlights and the undying urge to bring Avonte home. No borough was left unturned. Search efforts even reached the neighboring states of New Jersey and Connecticut. Our Facebook groups obtained tens of thousands of followers and shares from all over the WORLD. We even received support from prestigious foundations whose sole purpose is to provide support to families and individuals affected by autism, such as Autism Speaks. Avonte’s disappearance started a movement that will set the bar for what needs to be done for years to come in regards to any child that has gone missing, especially those with disabilities.
The entire city searched every corner for Avonte but to no avail. This past January what was left of his remains were found near the College Point area of Queens. It turns out that shortly after running out of the school, in his frightened and panic state, he possibly jumped into the water and drowned. Unfortunately this is only our best guess as the Medical Examiner was unable to determine the exact cause of death. This all could have been avoided if the school system had only ensured that schools were better equipped to handle children with autism. While we may never know what exactly happened to my younger brother, what we can do is help to avoid this tragic event from happening again. The waves created by this catastrophic incident will ripple through time forcing immediate change to the current security standards of schools across the country, starting with the ones here in New York. The city was behind us when we were attempting to find Avonte, and now the city is behind us as we make efforts to reform our school system’s security protocols. I applaud Senator Schumer for recognizing that changes need to be made and for proposing ‘Avonte’s Law’, which would finance a program to provide optional electronic tracking devices to be worn by children with autism. Lack of proper staff supervision, diligent security and awareness are reasons why my brother was able to slip through the cracks on the day he went missing. This is something many families raising children with disabilities are concerned with on a daily basis.
Sadly, our school systems currently don’t share the same concerns as the families that raise these children. So let us make certain that Avonte Oquendo’s death is not in vain. Let this tragic occurrence be the surge that builds up enough momentum to provide a real solution to the problematic issues that this hardship has brought to our attention. Let us do what is necessary to allot more funding for schools so they can provide their staff with proper training and implement appropriate security measures that would prevent another incident like this. Finally, let this be a reminder that at the end of the day, as tough as New Yorkers are, we can come together as one to achieve common goals that are in the best interest of our children, our loved ones, and our city.
On behalf of my family, I would like to thank all the searchers, marchers and everyone who held us in their thoughts for the love and support you have displayed during these extremely rough times. God bless you.