The long wait to find Avonte Oquendo is over. His body has been found washed up along the East River of New York. Being a parent of an autistic child does not hold the monopoly on grief. Every parent sheds tears for Avonte's family.
The news had been captivating, but in a hopeful way. We wanted Avonte to be found safe and sound. As the days turned into weeks and months, the hope did not wain for his parents. They held out, in prayers and vigils, wanting, waiting, because there could be nothing else.
How did this unspeakable tragedy occur! Yet it must not be unspeakable. Actions speak loud and clear. Avonte's death must speak volumes for the thousands of non-verbal children living with autism. Let Avonte's memory be for a blessing.
Liz Feld, President of Autism Speaks was interviewed by CBS news today. She quoted statistics, that half of all children with autism are known to wander. This means that they can bolt or run in a split second. The reason may not be apparent, especially for non-verbal children. The Guardian Angels have joined with Autism Speaks in raising awareness in communities. A statement made on November 25th detailed the plan:
Spearheaded by Autism Speaks Board Member Billy Mann and Guardian Angels Board Member and Treasurer Edward Moldaver, the partnership will roll out in 32 states where the Guardian Angels have chapters. The joint announcement was made this morning by Autism Speaks President Liz Feld and Guardian Angels Founder and CEO Curtis Sliwa during his syndicated radio show, The Curtis Sliwa Show.“Losing track of a child is terrifying to any parent, and our community is more vulnerable than most. We need partners on the ground in neighborhoods across the country to help keep our loved ones safe,” said Feld. “The Guardian Angels will do that. We are so proud to partner with them. This initiative will provide an actionable way to educate the public about wandering’s dangers while also supporting families whose loved ones have gone missing.”
Historically, there were no imperatives for school staff to be trained in dealing with autism. Special Education teachers must participate in practicums and learn about all disabilities in order to receive their degree. However, this requisite goes beyond educating faculty. Everyone in a school community, including custodians, security guards, cafeteria and office staff must be trained to understand that many students with autism spectrum disorders require a more individualized approach. First do no harm. Be pro-active by being informed.
It is vital that First Responders be trained as well. When interviewed, at a town meeting for Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, many parents of adult children express the need for first responders to be trained. The next concern was for community to recognize signs and how individuals might differ. It is all about safety.
Finally, children with autism have much to offer this world. Talents come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and disabilities. Avonte may have been the next great artist or musician or simply a sign for progress in the autism community. Perhaps he may still be a shining star.