Wandering in Adults
One of the more talked-about topics we have in our autism community today is that of wandering. This escalated last fall because of the wandering case of Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism from Queens who eloped from his Long Island City school. After months of searching, Avonte’s body was found in the East River. I attended a press conference held by Senator Schumer (D, NY) later that month with Avonte’s mother. It was one of the saddest events I had ever attended. So my heart dropped when last weekend we had another 14-year-old boy with autism, Eliceo Cortez from Brooklyn, New York, go missing. After a friend of mine saw the story on Fox 5 NY Facebook Page this weekend he asked me a question that changed the way I’ve looked at wandering. He asked, “Do you think because the boy looks like an adult he’ll receive the same attention as Avonte did?”
It was a question that I didn’t really have a strong opinion on up to that point. Two boys, both from the New York area, both 14, looked nothing alike to me although they were the same age. Avonte, who was 5’3 and 118 pounds, looked like a boy to me while Eliceo was 6’1 and 135 pounds and to me looked like he could very well be 18 years of age and a young adult. Fortunately, Eliceo was found in three days. But I began to consider whether we pay enough attention to adults who elope.
We need to make sure we don’t see wandering as a problem only in children. There was an opinion piece on Philly.com entitled “The Death No One Cares About” in which the author discusses a 37-year-old woman with autism from West Philadelphia named Christina Sankey who wandered away. Christina had wandered inside a Macy’s department store in her area and the following day her body was found a few miles away. The author suggests that Sankey’s story didn’t receive much public attention because of her age and socioeconomic status.
It is important for us to remember that wandering among people with autism happens across lifespan. Even though Sankey was 37, her intellectual functioning was that of someone much younger. Adults on the spectrum who elope are at risk—whether they have intellectual disability or not—due to challenges in self-awareness and in recognizing dangerous situations.
I’m passionate about this issue because I hope that one day our community doesn’t have to keep talking about the need for attention to be paid to autistic individuals who wander. Autism is a spectrum disorder where everyone has different ranges of ability. If someone with autism is missing, no matter the age, attention must be paid.
A study by the Interactive Autism Network reported that 49% of children with autism wander from a safe environment. Some will outgrow this tendency, but many will not. We need to work with law enforcement agencies on expanding the alert systems nationwide and examine how to best use available technology to help us track lost individuals.
As a society, it is our obligation to help keep individuals with special needs safe. Addressing the issue of wandering in people with autism may help make needless deaths like Avonte’s a thing of the past.