The city has been transfixed by the story that autistic and non-verbal Avonte Oquendo, 14, is still missing after almost five weeks. Both grassroots and official NYPD search parties have combed the city relentlessly. On Oct. 4, Avonte Oquendo ran out of Center Boulevard, a Long Island City school, after being left unsupervised.
There has been a massive search for him with an army of volunteers from all over the country and law enforcement from all over the tristate area. He still has not been found despite search and recovery efforts.
Daniel Oquendo told the AmNews, “I think someone has my son. I believe he is still alive, and I am just asking them to let him go, because he wants to come home. My son is autistic and does not speak. They can just let him go, and he cannot even say who they were or what happened to him. We want him to come home. Whoever has him, they should please let him come back to his family.”
After spending a month looking for his son, Daniel Oquendo told the AmNews that he is heading home to Florida to check on his ailing parents. “I am leaving briefly, but I will be back. I am praying that we can step up all efforts and come to a positive conclusion.”
He asked the city to please keep up the strenuous effort to find his son.“I just wanted to take this time to thank the public for all they have done for Avonte,” said Daniel Oquendo. He noted that his son, who turned 14 on Aug. 30, loves sweets, Beyoncé and video games on his tablet, especially “Temple Run.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer called for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to create and fund a program to provide voluntary tracking devices for children who have autism or other developmental disorders, for whom “bolting” from parents or caregivers is common. The voluntary program would only be for parents who choose to use the devices.
Schumer cited the case of Avonte Oquendo, whom he said “bolted“ from his school in Queens and, four weeks later, he is still missing. Schumer stated that the federal government already has a program to track seniors with Alzheimer’s and suggested that this program should be extended to include children with autism and other disorders. Schumer stressed that the program would be totally voluntary for parents, would be run by the Police Department or other local law enforcement and would also provide funding for training of individuals on how to use and maintain these devices. Parents, schools and law enforcement would all have to choose to participate. The senator pointed out that Massachusetts already has a successful program to help locate children with autism who wander.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Schumer states, “As you may have heard, early last month, a young child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) named Avonte Oquendo vanished from his Long Island City school in my home state of New York. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon among children with ASD; according to a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network, children with autism are four times more likely to wander than nonautistic children. In the wake of this terrible incident, and the many similar occurrences across the nation, we must do all that is necessary to ensure the safety of our children.”
Schumer added, “Some parents have chosen to have their children with ASD use small, wearable tracking devices that aid trained emergency responders or law enforcement to locate a missing individual. According to Project Lifesaver, a program which advocates for the use of tracking technology in the case of wandering, the use of such devices reduces the amount of time and resources required to locate an individual that has wandered by approximately 95 percent. It has come to my attention that the Department of Justice has awarded grants in the past to organizations that assist with missing or disappeared individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
“We would ask that the Department of Justice also look into awarding these types of funds to local law enforcement agencies or organizations if the parents of children with ASD decide that they would like to use these individual tracking devices and/or consult with trained specialists like those at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children so that they are better equipped to handle scenarios that involve missing children with ASD.”
The sights and sounds of the city “can be overstimulating and distracting for children and teens with autism, often leading to wandering as a way to escape. Voluntary tracking devices will help our teachers and parents in the event that the child runs away and, God forbid, goes missing,” said Schumer. “DOJ already funds these devices for individuals with Alzheimer’s, and they should do the same for children with autism spectrum disorder. Funding this program will help put school systems and parents of children and teens with autism at ease knowing where their children are.”
“As a leading provider of services to children with autism spectrum disorder, Nassau BOCES takes the safety and security of our children very seriously. This program would provide parents with an additional option to consider in the care and education of their child,” said Dr. Thomas Rogers, superintendent of Nassau BOCES.
“This type of tracking device has the potential to provide peace of mind for caregivers who have struggled with the challenge of elopement in their nonverbal children with autism for many years. All of the training, home alarm systems and other supports that can be put into place to keep a child who is prone to elopement safe are not foolproof. A safeguard such as this tracking system, that can help to quickly locate a child who has managed to elope, is vital in the quest to keep children with special needs safe,” said Dr. Julie Davis Luz, deputy superintendent for educational services at Eastern Suffolk BOCES.
“Bolting,” the experts explain, is running or wandering common among children and teens with autism. This is technically called elopement, which is the tendency to leave a safe place. Children and teens who exhibit this behavior tend to be at the severe end of ASDs.
The experts say that children and teens with autism tend to run for various reasons, including avoiding a demand or situation, sensory overload or trying to get to something or someone that they want to see. Often, by having a significant lack of impulse control and significant safety awareness, everyday situations may prove challenging, if not dangerous, to those living with autism.
According to Schumer’s office, “Tracking technology includes personal locating devices that can prevent tragedy when individuals wander from school or home and are lost. Tracking devices can be worn as nontampering wristwatches, anklets or clipped onto belt loops or onto shoelaces. When users of the device are missing, the caregiver/school system notifies the device company, and a trained emergency team responds to the area. Most who wander are found within a few miles from home. Recovery time for Project Lifesaver users, a maker of one of the devices, averages 30 minutes, which is 95 percent less time than it takes to find those without these tracking devices.” Schumer noted that these devices should be used in conjunction with other educational and behavior supports.
According to a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network and AWAARE, “49 percent of children and teens with autism attempt to run or wander. Of those who attempted to run, 53 percent of the children were missing long enough to cause serious concern.”
With the family doing radio and TV interviews, the story has gone national, picked up by network and cable media, including all the local stations, MSNBC, CNN and BET. Law enforcement predicts that Avonte Oquendo could be anywhere in the city or even outside of the city.
Anyone with information on the case should contact the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS, text CRIMES and then enter TIP577 or visit www.nypdcrimestoppers.com.