For the past week and a half, New York City straphangers have been hearing an unusual announcement during their commutes. “Police are seeking a missing child, Avonte Oquendo, fourteen. He suffers from autism and cannot communicate verbally.” The message describes his striped shirt, jeans, and sneakers; riders are instructed to contact the NYPD. The same message runs on the electronic sign boards on the platforms, between wait times for different lines. The MTA is running the alerts because like many people on the autism spectrum, Avonte likes trains, and the hope is that he will gravitate toward subway stations.
Anyone who has lived in a city recognizes the mask of defensive impassivity commuters typically wear. But change comes over passengers’ faces when they hear this public service announcement. In those moments every single person has the same hope: that he be found, that he be unharmed. By now, we all know his face, which is plastered all over the subway system.
Oquendo walked out of his school in Long Island City, Queens, on October 4 and has not been seen since. Hundreds of volunteers have been searching around the clock; the reward is now more than $70,000. Psychics are working with the cops; divers have started dragging the East River. Meanwhile, the MTA has taken the unprecedented step of suspending overnight track work and deploying employees to scour all 468 stations for the missing boy. “No one knows the subway system like track workers,” said Transport Workers Union Local 100 president John Samuelsen.
It has long been understood that those with autism and Asperger’s are often drawn to transit systems; the order of the schedules, the complexity of the timetables and maps, can be both soothing and engaging. Darius McCollum, the Staten Island man whose fixation with the New York City transit system (and, more to the point, his penchant for impersonating transit workers and occasionally commandeering trains and buses) has gotten him arrested more than twenty times, is sort of a legend, but his is only an extreme example. In recent years, educators have capitalized on this established correlation: the London Transport Museum has hosted teenagers in its timetabling department, while the New York Transit Museum runs a “Subway Sleuths” after-school program for seven- to eleven-year-olds that is designed to “use children’s interest in transit to help them navigate social experiences with peers.” Studies in the UK and Australia have found that children on the autism spectrum identified strongly with Thomas the Tank Engine; the parent company, Thomas and Friends, has joined up with several initiatives designed to help put this influence to good use.
Of course, to a child alone, the subway system can be anything but a friendly place. One need not enumerate the dangers. To most passengers, the subway is an experience to be borne at the best of times: efficient, affordable, and round-the-clock, yes, but hardly pleasant. It is strange to hear these announcements, and look around at each other, and know we are all realizing that there is a child who finds the same experience we are tolerating magical and reassuring, and that it is also endangering him, and that, at the same time, the whole, big, impersonal thing is being mobilized to try and find him. As the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, the trains enthusiast who created Thomas the Tank Engine, once said, “a steam engine has always got character. It’s the most human of all man-made machines.”
Chief of Department Phil Banks said that if anyone thinks they see Avonte, they should call the department’s hotline at 800-577-TIPS.