In October 2013, Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old New Yorker diagnosed with autism, disappeared. Oquendo, who could not speak due to his condition, had run out the front door of his Queens public school unnoticed.
His disappearance gripped the largest city in America, and over the next four months, an exhaustive search took place: posters depicting Oquendo were spread throughout the city and shared on Facebook; the NYPD sent officers into the subways and marine units into the East River; and volunteers scoured the city in search of any evidence of the teenager’s whereabouts.
In mid-January 2014, the remains of a body appearing to be Oquendo’s were found on the shore of the East River in College Point, Queens. Days later, the identity of the body was verified by DNA evidence.
Oquendo’s tragic loss would not be forgotten, nor would it be in vain. His mother Vanessa Fontaine, who had warned school officials about Oquendo’s tendency to run off, successfully sued the school and the city for wrongful death. The lawsuit led to the enactment of “Avonte’s Law” in New York City and “Kevin and Avonte’s Law” across the United States, both of which implemented safety measures for children with autism, such as the installation of alarms on school doors in New York City and standards for the use of voluntary GPS tracking on students with developmental disabilities throughout the country.
The Perecman Firm, which represented Fontaine in her lawsuit against New York City, was so affected by Oquendo’s story and by the outpouring of support for his family, that they established a scholarship for autistic students in his memory.
The Avonte Oquendo Memorial Scholarship for Autism, available to students with autism or who have a family member with autism, is now open for the 2020 academic year. Over the years since Oquendo’s death, the program has helped raise awareness around autism and the challenges that individuals who are affected by the condition face on a daily basis. The Perecman Firm has upped its commitment from $1,000 to $5,000 for the 2020 school year.
More than 3.5 million people in the United States are currently living with autism, and the number of children diagnosed with autism has increased dramatically in recent years. It is important for people to understand exactly what autism is and how it affects different people, yet it is also one of the most commonly misunderstood medical conditions.
One in every 59 children born in the country is diagnosed with autism, up from one in 150 in 2000. Approximately 1 percent of the world’s population has autism, and it is more common in men than women.
Many people with autism struggle to adapt to the demands of daily life. Thirty-five percent of young adults ages 19-23 with autism have not had a job or received a college education. For those who do go to college, the transition can be difficult.
Learning to live independently can be a challenge for any 18-year-old. For those with autism, it means coping with a unique set of challenges, and oftentimes without a support system to fall back on. People with autism often have trouble with important life skills like organization, cleaning, cooking, self-care and money management. Furthermore, because of the costs of living, education and special services, people with autism from lower-income families are at particularly high risk.
Yet, despite the stigmas and challenges associated with autism, people with autism are often very bright, talented and creative individuals with high attention to detail, the ability to think methodically and analytically, and a unique approach to problem-solving.
These characteristics have helped some people with autism achieve remarkable feats. The list of successful people with autism is varied and numerous. It includes an Oscar-winning actor (Anthony Hopkins), a world-famous comedian (Dan Akyroyd), a Nobel Prize-winning economist (Vernon Smith), a National Championship winning basketball player (Anthony Ianni), a respected professor of animal science and autism advocate (Dr. Temple Grandin), and a prolific actress and environmental activist (Daryl Hannah).
If nothing else, the success of these individuals points to the potential of many young adults with autism. The Avonte Oquendo Memorial Scholarship and other scholarships for students affected by autism are helping students with autism realize their potential. In doing so, it also ensures that Avonte Oquendo’s life and story are never forgotten.
Sam Benezra is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in History from the Honors Tutorial College. He is a native of Brooklyn, New York. Sam enjoys writing on a variety of subjects, including science, music, politics, film. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, playing guitar, and writing songs.