NYPD divers search East River for missing autistic teen

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NEW YORK (PIX11) – New developments in the search for Avonte Oquendo may indicate that the 14 year-old mute special needs student with autism is still alive somewhere, even after being missing for 11 days.

Police on Tuesday stepped up their already significant efforts to find the adolescent with special needs, with the NYPD’s Chief of Department turning up at the search command post to offer moral support.  Searchers also expanded the area in which they were looking for the young teen to outside of the Tri-State.

Meanwhile, in the area near where Avonte went missing, near Center Boulevard in Long Island City, helicopters flew low and slowly over the many construction sites and industrial lots in the area, as well as over the East River adjacent to the boulevard, searching for any clue that might lead to the boy.

He somehow managed to run away from Center Boulevard School on October 4th, even though it has security and teaching staffs set up to protect students.  A surveillance camera recorded video of the lanky adolescent running out of a side door, then onto the sidewalk and north on Center Boulevard.  He hasn’t been heard from or seen since.

“It’s affecting us more than I can say on camera,” said NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks during a visit to the command post for the search, on Center Boulevard, across the street from the school.  He said that he’d led a meeting at Police Headquarters Tuesday morning in which senior police management all talked personally about the search for Avonte.  “We said if this was our son, what would we be doing differently?”

Chief Banks said commanders were bringing in additional patrol cops to the Center Boulevard command post to spread out through the community and ask residents, business owners and tourists if they’d seen the boy, as well as to hand out fliers.

East River

An NYPD dive team searched the East River Tuesday for missing autistic teen Avonte Oquendo as police helicopters flew overhead. (photo/James Ford)

He also said that clothing retailer Old Navy was sending searchers an exact replica of the striped shirt Avonte had been wearing when he went missing.  Searchers want to show the shirt to the public to further help in identifying the boy if he’s spotted.   He may still be wearing the same rugby striped polo shirt, assuming he’s alive.

That’s a reasonable assumption, according to a person with extensive experience with young people with conditions similar to Avonte’s.   “I’ve worked with children with autism as a… school psychologist,” said Dr. J. Buzz Ornsteiner in an interview.  He said that years ago, he’d had a student with needs similar to those of Avonte Oquendo “who ran away.  And he eventually came back.”

Dr. Ornsteiner said that his runaway student ended up spending days living in Macy’s department store at Herald Square before he was found.  “As long as he has the ability just to survive,” Ornsteiner said, “to get something to eat, to go to the bathroom and get some kind of sleep…  I am convinced that  [Avonte is] still out there.”

Ornsteiner is also a criminal psychologist, and his training in that field has left him wondering something similar to what Avonte’s family is now concerned about — that somebody abducted the boy sometime after he ran away from school.

“He’s not going to have the ability to escape,” said Ornsteiner.  “He doesn’t have the cognitive ability in terms of capacity.”  Also, Dr. Ornsteiner added, “there might be a fear component there” preventing the young, disabled teen from escaping.

Those elements may actually be positive, according to the expert in autism special needs and criminal psychology, in that they may cause an abductor to let Avonte go if he is being held captive.

“The fear that this individual will somehow be caught, and the fear that the child can be able to identify him is not there,” said Ornsteiner.  He explained that Avonte Oquendo’s disabilities prohibit him from knowing anything about his abductor, if indeed the boy has been kidnapped.

Avonte’s lack of comprehension is something his family has seized upon, as they appeal to anyone who may be holding their son and brother.

“Just let him go,” said Daniel Oquendo, Jr., Avonte’s brother.  “Drop him off at a church or school, or some other public place.  He can’t even tell where he is, or who you are.”