Two weeks ago I went to Long Island City to find out how a 14-year-old boy named Avonte escaped from his school and into the world. I didn’t learn much. We don’t know how he managed to get out of the building without someone seeing him and stopping him, how he then made it onto the sidewalk and into the streets, across from a riverside park populated by joggers and nannies with babies, still without an adult seeing him and stopping him. And we don’t know where he went. Teams of police were walking through construction sites and undeveloped grassy land (until that day I never noticed that there was undeveloped grass anywhere in New York City), small talking as they walked.
I came as a journalist, to find out what the school looked like so I could get a better sense of the logistics of the child’s escape. After one attempt at talking with the police that resulted in nothing but reminding me of how scared I am of them and how dismissive of me they are, I walked away, insecure and uncertain of how to talk to anyone. I looked at the door that the boy escaped from, turned my head toward the open space, and began walking. I didn’t want to talk to anyone anymore, I just wanted to look for him.
As I walked, I thought about a boy I used to work with who was also nonverbal, like Avonte. My young friend was seven years old, which is the age that authorities say Avonte is intellectually even though his body is fourteen. My friend’s body was seven but he was younger on the inside. He loved to run, and I couldn’t blame him, because he rarely got the opportunity to. His parents and I would go outside with him and he would run 10 feet ahead and turn around, grinning and out of breath. It was fun to see him run, because kids need to be able to run, but the problem was that he didn’t know about streets and cars, and we needed to make sure he was safe when he ran. That boy lives in Minnesota, and I haven’t seen him since he was seven, but shortly after I moved to New York City his family got an “autism dog,” whose job was to keep their wonderful seven year old from running where he wasn’t supposed to. I think about him all the time, I’ve never cared about a kid quite the way I care about him (and his entire family), but as I walked around Long Island City, Queens, I thought about him more than usual.
I don’t know Avonte and I don’t know if he’s anything like my seven year old friend except that neither of them communicate verbally and they both have autism. The boy I know had one word– “hi”– and he used it liberally and enthusiastically, usually in threes. I also read that Avonte communicated by pointing, which my young friend did too. He didn’t speak but had excellent functional communication, knowing exactly which cabinet the Doritos were in when he wanted a snack, and that if he tapped his dad’s mouth his dad would sing to him, and if he didn’t like the song he could tap it again and his dad would sing something different. So I walked around trying to think about where Avonte would go, by way of thinking about where my old Minnesotan friend would go.
The day I went to his school, there was a report that Avonte was found, and I felt happy like I knew him, but within minutes it was reported that in fact it was a different missing boy who was found, not Avonte. I stood there staring at the school and the swarms of the police and scattered onlookers, when two separate herds of preschoolers passed by each other, holding onto their little preschool herding device. The tiny little people were so excited to pass some other tiny people and they waved to each other and said “Hi! Hi! Hi!” just like my old Minnesotan fiend.
Later, I overheard another small person asking his adult about the police and the missing boy. He asked why the boy ran away, and his adult fumbled about how to explain that the boy, even though he is a teenager, may not have fully understood what he was doing. “He was confused,” she said to him, and although he wasn’t satisfied with the answer, I thought she did an okay job of not saying anything horrible about disabled people. Another woman I talked to kept saying that she understood that autistic children should be around “normal” children but shouldn’t they be in their own schools? He was in his own school, I told her, but his school was co-located with schools populated by children without disabilities. Still, she kept repeating “normal” kids and “regular” kids, and I didn’t want to keep talking to her but she asked me what I thought. I told her that children with disabilities should be around everyone, they just need to be supported so that something like this doesn’t happen.
I’ve worked with both general ed and special ed students, and there’s nothing “normal” or “regular” about kids. Such words shouldn’t be used to describe some and disparage others. They’re exceptional by their very nature. It’s just that some of them, like Avonte and my friend, don’t communicate the way the kids you’re used to do.
People aren’t used to it because they’re not used to seeing kids like Avonte and my friend. If you never see kids like them, how will you see them when they need you?