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Avonte's Case Spurs Greater Awareness of Autism

Friday, January 24, 2014 - 01:26 PM

Avonte Oquendo's family at a vigil on October 11th, outside his school in Long Island City, one week after his disappearance. (Beth Fertig/WNYC)

Avonte Oquendo's family will hold a funeral service Saturday for the 14 year-old autistic boy whose remains were found last week, three months after he disappeared from his public school for children with special needs.

For parents of children with autism, Avonte Oquendo's death is "a fear they live with every day," according to Liz Feld, president of Autism Speaks. Feld was a guest on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show.

Many families of children with special needs have been touched by Avonte's death. Feld explained that children with autism are especially vulnerable.

"A third of the autism population is nonverbal. So you can imagine what it's like trying, for somebody who's lost, who's autistic to try to communicate. If they can't swim or they're scared or they're hungry," she said.

A recent study by the Interactive Autism Network, funded in-part by Autism Speaks, reported that 49 percent of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder are prone to wandering.

Also, Feld said, individuals with autism are attracted to bodies of water, often with tragic ramifications. Avonte's school is located in Long Island City just blocks from the East River; his remains were found in the water, near the College Point shoreline. 

Between 2009 and 2011, she said accidental drowning accounted for 91 percent of the 42 total deaths reported in children with autism, ages 14 and younger, who went missing.

"A big part of the work we're doing now is providing water safety and swimming lessons for autistic individuals so that they can be safe in the water," she said. 

Several people who called the Brian Lehrer Show were quite emotional about Avonte's death, and said they hoped it would provide an opportunity for communities to give more support to individuals with autism.

Maria from Morris Plains , said her special needs son was once left alone by a bus driver when he was very little. He was helped by a neighbor. "He could have been lost," she said. "If we, all of us, considered them our children we can save lives," she said.

Feld said parents of children with special needs should take steps to inform emergency responders and members of their communities about their children's tendency to wander, or difficulties communicating. And she said all school staffers should be trained to recognize a child with disabilites.

Autism Speaks recently announced a partnership with the National Center for Missing, and Exploited Children to help prevent and respond to wandering incidents.

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