Last week I received this text from my husband: Terrifying! We should talk to Philip about this now that we know he can understand why it is dangerous to bolt and run. He sent me the link to the story of Avonte Oquendo, a 14 year old non-verbal autistic boy who has been missing for over two weeks after he wandered away from his school in Long Island City, NY.
As soon as I read the story of Avonte, I felt a huge knot in my gut. I immediately felt Avonte’s mom’s panic and terror, like a nightmare you wish you could wake up from but can’t. That feeling came upon me at least twice in my life. The first time, we were living in Miami. Philip was 4 or 5 at the time. I allowed Philip to play in our fenced-in backyard for short bouts unsupervised. This time I got caught up with some chores and let more time pass before checking on him. When I finally went to look for him, he was nowhere to be found! I screamed his name as my heart pounded loud in my chest. I called to my mom, who was living with us at the time, “Have you seen Philip?” “No,” she jumped up. “Oh my God. He’s missing!”
I remember calling the Miami Springs police, explaining my son with autism was missing from our home. He couldn’t speak. They responded to my call within minutes, saying they would make a careful search of our house first. I was crying. We lived only a few houses down from a canal and Philip loved water. My mind flashed images of rescuers pulling a blue Philip out of the canal, and then pictures of his life in still frames ending in a small coffin. I thought I was going to suffocate and die. The police walked along our fence and found a missing slat from our wooden fence. Philip must have escaped through it. My mother started combing the back alley and eventually found my son playing in the grass of a neighbor’s yard, completely content. I hugged and kissed my little boy like never before. I was so relieved.
The second time Philip went missing was in our new house in Buffalo. Again I called the cops after looking up and down the street to no avail. We found Philip sitting in my husband’s car in the garage. The policeman recommended filling out a form for Philip to file as a potential wandering risk. It had a place for his picture and a section on things he was drawn to. I filled it out that day and mailed it to the local station.
When my husband came home the evening after the reading about Avonte’s disappearance, we sat Philip down and read him the article about Avonte. My husband then did a lesson RPM style with choices. He asked Philip, how do you think Avonte feels being lost- happy or scared? SCARED, Philip chose. Which place is safe to go- street or home? HOME. Sam continued with questions such as these with choices. Sam then asked me to hold the letterboard while he asked Philip questions. “How can we help Avonte?” Philip answered, “THE DOOR SHOULD ONLY OPEN TO STAFF.” Philip had a great point. Why were the side doors of the school able to be opened by kids? And why wasn’t Avonte properly supervised? Sam then asked, “Why is it important not to run off from home or school?” “I CAN GET RUN OVER BY A CAR” he answered. I asked Philip, “Why do you think Avonte and other autistic kids run off?” Philip spelled, “TO ALWAYS ATTACK AT STOPPING SEEMS NOT POSSIBLE.” I thought about that. Philip is always moving. I am always on guard looking after him wherever we go. He just cannot stay in one place for long. “Philip, why are you always moving?” I asked. “THERE IS A LOT TO ENJOY.” That describes my son very much. He is the one to splash in a puddle, smell the flowers, twirl leaves, and run with the wind. I then asked, “How can we help you stay out of trouble.” “STAY NEAR ME,” he answered.
I hope and pray they find Avonte soon. I know Philip is praying too.