Fear, Ignorance, And Me. Avonte Oquendo's Disappearance.
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.
I always say, the siblings will save the world. Thank you Natalie for sharing your love for your family with all of us.
Posted by: KFuller | December 16, 2013 at 02:12 PM
How well you see everything (and in a manifold sense).
Posted by: John Stone | December 14, 2013 at 05:39 PM
I greatly appreciate all of your posts, but this one in particular. God bless you Natalie, I am amazed by you and your strength of character and actions from afar.
Posted by: Jean | December 14, 2013 at 05:25 PM
Natalie, you are an awesome young woman!
I suggest that many college age students, unlike you, are not mature enough to ask a question as they really want to ask it, or even be aware of their true motivations.
I also had "roommate" trouble at my first college for similar reasons, though we did not have any special needs in our family. But our family had a lot of love and a lot of laughs. They were very close, and I made the mistake of bringing homemade cookies back from visits to Ohio. Some roommates would have loved this, but I had the wrong ones. Two of my roommates made fun of me and tried to say I was "too young" to be at colllege because I didn't rebel against my family and was "too close" to them. They said it dripping with hatred, and I could not understand it.
Years later, I finally put 2 x 2 together ---the people making fun of me and challenging me felt pain every time they saw how loved I was by my family, and the support I had. They were too immature to be able to say that directly, so, since I was a source of their painful awareness of the lacking in their family, they attacked me.
If I had it to do over again, I think I would have said, in response to their criticism "I wish you had a family like mine, so you could understand. I'm really lucky, aren't I?" in a compassionate voice. Maybe it would cause them to think about what is really motivating them. At least, it would defend you, and make them clam up. (And the other thing is they could be jealous of you, and can't think of another thing to criticize, so they came up with your closeness to your family!)
You are a gem in the world, and a joy to your family. I hope these insights helped.
Posted by: Carolyn Flannery | December 13, 2013 at 05:38 PM
Natalie never let the thoughtless comments of such insensitive people upset you. They are the ones to be pitied as they probably do not have a wonderful and loving family such as yours. We have two sons and our older son looks out for his younger brother with autism in every way he can. God Bless you and your family and keep writing your great articles.
Posted by: Gayle | December 13, 2013 at 03:31 PM
Your video is beautiful and so is this piece. Having experienced a temporary physical disability too I'm sure made you realize even more what it is like for others. So sorry to here about your accident and I hope you are recovering well.
As a parent of two young adults, our oldest is fifteen months older that his brother who has autism, I see a lot of you in him. He's been there, never faltering, and also had difficulties going away to college because he felt he was needed at home to assist with his brother. However we purposely wanted the separation to be there. We knew too that it would not be easy for either of them. A first year away is difficult too for many students and you experienced a big set back, but still persevered and being a sibling of a person with ASD may have assisted there too.
In all of this no one really knows what others experience 24/7 and it's frustrating be we must move past that expectation because there is much to do. I know I felt that way, but we can't all know what is transpiring, even in the ASD community. However we all can try to be compassionate and empathetic.
Avonte's case is a difficult one for many reasons, but most importantly because it shows the weakness in the ability for others to meet the needs of individuals like Avonte whose lives may rest upon the care provided by others. We pray each night for Avonte's safe return as a family and for others as well. This is not easy, but we do need to continue to try to come together to get this done.
Thank you for not forgetting Avonte and sharing this beautiful piece.
Best wishes to you and your family for a wonderful holiday and to you also for an even more successful next semester.
Posted by: Carolyn | December 13, 2013 at 02:54 PM
The one question you and falling back on what a book says as evidence is to be pitied.
Real life will wake her up to the fact that there was a human being that wrote the book; not God.
So she has got a real big problem of understanding the real world already. Hummm a handicap in fact, but one of her own making.
Posted by: Benedetta | December 13, 2013 at 12:51 PM
"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."
WOW! So well said, Natalie! We have that atmosphere and attitude in our home, too, and I thank God for that! We have 3 children (who are young adults now at nearly 18, 20, and 22), with our middle child being the impacted one. I believe that it is largely due to his needs that his 2 siblings are the mature, compassionate, loving, helpful people that they are. Like your family, we have always had to work as a team to help our disabled son, to keep him safe, and to be able to go places as a family. Every outing is a true team effort, and they automatically offer help and encouragement without even thinking about it…it is second nature to them. This carries over into their relationships with one another, with my husband and me, and with others. This has all transpired b/c, as you so aptly stated, "the autism doesn't care."
So thrilled to hear that you've had a great first semester, and that you haven't let rude, thoughtless, cruel comments by ignorant others get you down. Keep up your great work, your great attitude, and your great help to your loving family! May God bless you and all that you do, Natalie, and may you trust in His strength and know His peace :)
Posted by: Laura Hayes | December 13, 2013 at 12:49 PM
I can see you know those students' comments are of no value. Being twice your age I would normally tell you to disregard them as background noise and go on your merry way, but I don't need to. Anthony is very lucky to have you. Maybe seeing you in that scooter, particularly if they had never seen you without it, frightens them from getting to know too much about you or getting close. I mean in their minds the scooter puts a stigma on you. I am mystified why anyone would have even the slightest wonder over how much another person phones home, much less form an opinion about it, and then decide whether it's "healthy". I wouldn't have even noticed it myself, but if I did I like to think I would have just thought "wow there must be a lot of love in that house", regardless of whether there's someone at the other end with a disability, which as a casual observer I would have no idea. But whatever my opinion, I try to teach my kids that words are for building people up and not for cutting people down. In that college setting, only encouraging words are appropriate. You would think someone smart enough to make it to college would know better. Your strength is a huge asset to your whole family Natalie.
Posted by: Carter's Daddy | December 13, 2013 at 09:36 AM
"Because we’ve always worked as a team, we do not have an adversarial parent-child dynamic."
I didn't deal with autism growing up, but I can relate so much to you Natalie. I grew up in a family that supported each other 100%. I never had "teenage angst", I never hated my parents. Not only did my brother and I never fight, he drove me and my friends where ever we wanted to go, gave me money, and generally looked out for me at all times. The ideal big Bro.
But the crazy thing is that SOME people will say that is strange! They will want to criticize people that have happy families because that was not THEIR experience - which makes NO SENSE. So many people hate, or at least have high animosity towards their families, which I find incredibly sad.
But you are one lucky girl! You have a maturity and knowledge of your destiny that most people only dream of achieving. You know who you are, and what you want to do in life. And you have a supportive family that will help you get there. Yeah, the bitter hearts will resent you for that. But that is their sad outlook on life, not yours.
Your good heart only makes their dark ones look that much darker. So they will try to take you down a notch or two. Little do they know that could NEVER work!
You know what really matters. Our families safe and happy. I hope and pray Avonte is found safe. And I will continue to hope and pray the world will care about his fate.
Posted by: Sylvia | December 13, 2013 at 09:35 AM
Beautifully expressed, Natalie. I so admire you.
Posted by: Maurine Meleck | December 13, 2013 at 08:04 AM
Your comments about Avonte is so encouraging I daily pray and have sent flyers to help in his recovery. Your continued support in shining light that at times may seem dim will help in the continued support the family needs. You seem to have a kind spirit and loving family, don't change who you are because people from the outside don't understand. Your journey may help them do better, because they will know better. I agree that in your family your brother needs the entire families support. My son who like Avonte is nonverbal also has the support of my entire family and I feel blessed to have their continued support. Please continue you're doing a great job....
Posted by: Tonya | December 13, 2013 at 06:51 AM