I am 19, a freshman Motion Designer at Ringling College of Art and Design, and I have an older brother with low-verbal autism. Currently, I am enjoying a long winter break after a successful first semester. My projects for 4D were among the featured, and I am excited for next semester because I will be learning traditional animation techniques, and learning stop motion.
Anthony is never far from my mind, even when I’m away at college. When I heard about 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo being missing, my heart sank. The feeling got worse as time grew along with my anxiousness after two months of him being missing. Personally, these kinds of stories where children end up missing, especially when they are unable to communicate, are the stories that upset me the most. I think of Anthony, and how vulnerable he is because he’s low verbal. These stories are the reason that I try to strive for success for both of us, because I want to avoid the possibility of danger and heartbreak. Some of the students do not understand why I am so driven. I consider attending Ringling a privilege, and nothing is more important to me than the work.
About two weeks into being at Ringling, I broke my left foot while working. My camera was raised on a tripod, and I had to step on a chair to look through the viewfinder. I suffered a metatarsal fracture stepping down off the chair. For two months, I was in a medical scooter, restricted from walking. Despite the injury, I loved my classes, and my teachers were pleased with my work. I was happiest when I was working, and called home frequently to let my parents know I was okay and enjoying college. My mother was concerned that my broken foot would interfere with my adjusting to college life, and I wanted her to know that I was really all right. My teachers were so encouraging that the phone calls were to share good news more than anything else.
Despite the fact I was happy, getting all my work done, and coping on a medical scooter, a couple of freshmen felt the need to impose their opinion on me. My mother has told stories of strangers approaching her with judgments and opinions about Anthony. Anthony is physically beautiful, so many questioned his level of disability. She often said she had to endure thoughtless comments from people that didn’t understand her situation. Little did I know I was about to get a taste of those thoughtless judgments.
A couple of students (who incidentally offered me no help and showed no desire to socialize with me) took it upon themselves to question why I called home so much. I attempted to explain that I was happy, our family dynamic is different, and that we have always worked together to manage Anthony and his autism. Because we’ve always worked as a team, we do not have an adversarial parent-child dynamic. Those concepts do not apply in our house because the autism doesn’t care. I had hoped for understanding, and received judgment instead. They did not want to consider my special circumstances, and insisted I wasn’t coping. One person actually said, “But your brother isn’t here,” and insisted that she read in a book that my behavior was unhealthy. Dumbfounded and annoyed, I responded with, “Most general books do not address families with issues like mine.”
I found it incredulous that someone who offered me no help had the gall to criticize how I was coping. I never missed class, never missed a deadline, completely took care of myself on a medical scooter, and asked for no consideration beyond the medical restrictions. I really was enjoying my classes and loving the work. I would never pass judgment on a person or circumstance that I barely knew, and yet they question me. At that moment, I felt my mother’s frustration being judged by strangers.
Because I was raised to be a caregiver, I had to grow up faster than most of my friends. Anthony’s autism made me aware of dangers all around me. Every outing, big or small, meant being on high alert to keep my brother safe. It was impossible to care about anything superficial when all family moments felt vulnerable and dangerous unless we were very careful. I am an optimistic person, which is why I love my art. Outwardly, I seem very innocent, but my life has taught me to be skeptical, aware, and identify hypocrisy. I know the difference between true concern, and self-serving agendas.
Avonte Oquendo’s story haunts me as a sibling, and my heart goes out to his brother Daniel. I can only imagine their heartbreak and pain suffering so many days without answers. My father, who is generally a pessimist, has remarked on so many stories where these resourceful children with autism re-emerge unharmed. I quell my fear by focusing on my father’s optimism. Avonte’s family now suffers from the lack of understanding of autism from the outside. This is why I advocate because I want my brother and all others like him to be safer in the world. This is why I work so hard, and this is how I cope.