Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism, has been missing since October 4, 2013. He wandered from his school in Queens, New York, and has been the subject of an intense hunt by police, family and friends, and many other concerned citizens ever since. According to KFL FM News there is an $85,000 reward for information, but still no sign of the child.
His brother, Danny, told KFL that he can understand even though he cannot speak. There are two facebook pages for Avonte. Please look at the photos on each of them so that you might recognize Avonte if you should see him.
On a personal note, I have experienced my child missing for up to an hour and a half or so on several occasions. She goes through stages of wandering. She is the same age as Avonte, and she is also nonverbal. As many times as she has run off, so far we've been able to find her within an hour to an hour and a half, often with police assistance. I can tell you the fear is unbearable and I do not know how Avonte's family is coping after this many days, but I know they are in deep pain.
Elopement is a big problem with autistic people. According to Dr. Manny at Fox News, nearly half of all autistic children will wander off at some point. They are curious and adventurous, not trying to run away. They are largely unaware of dangers.
Please join the search for Avonte in any way you can, by spreading the word, "liking" the facebook pages, and keeping your eyes open. Perhaps he has ended up outside of Queens.
I pray for his safe return. I pray I never have another minute of missing my own daughter, though I know it's likely I will.
Avonte's story points out a glaringly serious and often misunderstood danger for autistic children: it's difficult to completely prevent elopement. Over the years, I've been given some seriously lacking instructions and advice given to me to aid me in keeping my daughter from wandering. I've had concerned social workers sit in my living room and tell me they just don't know how to help keep my daughter safe. Dr. Manny gives some good advice for how to deal with this issue, although one part of it will not work for all children. Not all children can learn their own name and recite it when asked by strangers, much less their address, phone number or relatives' names. Parents of autistic children should prepare as much as possible for this kind of event, even if their children have not yet attempted to run off.
Here are some things that have helped our family in dealing with this problem and getting our daughter home safely:
Protecting your autistic child from wandering
- Put alarms on all windows and doors. If your child, like mine, is an expert at figuring out how things work, you will need alarms that cannot be turned off manually, but must have a code used in a central controller.
- Use door and window locks that your child cannot open. For some children this will mean high latches, but for others it may mean a double-keyed lock or a lock that uses a keypad from the inside as well as the outside. Some consider the double-keyed lock to be a fire hazard, and there is also the possibility of the child finding or taking the key, so consider that very carefully before making the decision.
- Consider Angel Guards on the windows, if your child would be unable to open them.
- Lock up or remove lightweight furniture, step stools, ladders that could possibly be used to climb over a fence or down from a high window.
- Teach your child his name and address if possible. Provide identification in the form of a medical bracelet or necklace if your child will keep one on. If not, try to find something your child will tolerate, such as an ID tag on the shoestrings.
- Talk to the police in your area and give them a packet of information on your child now -- don't wait until your child is missing. The information packet should contain all contact information, medications, behaviors your child is likely to exhibit, especially if the behavior might be interpreted as aggression, several photographs of your child, height, weight, nicknames, and anything else that can be used to help find your child, such as specific interests or activities the child may look for. Many autistic children are drawn to water or vehicles; my child is drawn to entering people's homes or stores. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2011-02-05/health/fl-hk-autism-swimming-020611-20110204_1_autistic-children-water-safety-baby-otter-swim-school
- Take walks in your neighborhood with your child. Talk to her about good and bad people. Teach him how to watch for cars and cross streets. Introduce your child to trusted neighbors and make sure the neighbors know that the child should never be outside alone so they know to call you or the police if they notice the child walking alone. Yes, it's a bit scary to give personal information to neighbors that you don't know well, but use your best judgment and take the best risks because that may be all you have if your child gets up and wanders away while you're sleeping. You may want some neighbors to have a short version of the packet the police get.
- The school should have all the same information as the police, both in the main office and in the classroom.
- Discuss the rules of the classroom and the school and go over the details of your child's IEP. Make sure the amount of supervision outlined is correct for your child. My daughter must have adult supervision at all times, and that adult must have direct line of vision and be very close at hand, within a few feet while in the classroom, hands on while in the hallway or outside. Your child may or may not need supervision as strict as that, but you must write into the records and the IEP the amount of supervision that you and the IEP team and the child's therapists feel is correct.
- If your child enjoys the company of a dog, consider getting him a dog that is trained to stay by his side at all times, trained to alert adults, or a dog trained to track your child. My daughter had one or two safe endings because she took her Rottweiler with her when she wandered. This is a terrifying subject that haunts me constantly, so I wrote a lighthearted story about her wandering with her Rottweiler. Sometimes it helps to look at the cute side. We've not been able to find another dog that filled this role since.
- Whenever possible, have at least two adults present in the home or during outings. This is not always possible, but something to work for. Even an older child or teenager can help monitor the autistic child and alert the parent when the parent is showering, cooking or doing other tasks.
- Look into an electronic GPS device that your child can wear at all times and will actually keep on.
Please leave any tips you have learned in the comments. This is a very difficult problem as children grow bigger and stronger and learn how to open all types of devices, so parents should share what they've learned.