062 What you can do when vulnerable children go missing?

An Insensitive Remark

Two days ago, I received an alert to look out for an autistic child X who had gone missing. What would you have done?

Photo: Facebook “Reunite Missing Children”

Some people might have carried on with their own business without batting an eyelid. Some people might have taken a closer look to check if they had seen the missing child somewhere. Some people might have spread the word to others. And there might also be people who offered their help to assist the family.

I was not surprised that people thought and acted differently. But I was aghast at someone’s comment on the Facebook page that went,

“Looks like this is not the first time this boy has gone missing. Shouldn’t the parents just get the child a GPS tracker?”

“What an insensitive remark!”I thought. In veiled anger, I wrote on the Facebook,

 “Please feel like you’ve lost your own child. Do what you can. If you cannot, keep quiet. Don’t make the parents feel worse.”

Almost immediately, the man deleted his comment without a word.

Parents Fear The Worst

As a parent who had been through similar ordeal, I know that when a vulnerable child goes missing, it is a time that the affected family needs support most.

Photo: Facebook “Reunite Missing Children”

My thoughts went back to several years ago, to that day my elder son Kyan, who has moderate ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) disappeared into the lift in the blink of an eye while I was locking the door. Immediately, I dashed down ten storeys of staircase in the hope of catching him in time. But I was too late. The lift was empty by the time I reached ground floor.

He was nowhere to be found. Not anywhere within the parameters of the condominium. Could he have sneaked out of the side gate with the other residents? Could he have walked out of the main gate under the watchful eyes of security guards? In my frantic search, I asked every passerby. No one saw him.

My wife and I split ways to search in the neighbourhood. I feared the worst as I watched on the fast-moving vehicles on the roads. What if he ignored traffic rules and got hit by a car? Immediately, I alerted the police for assistance who quickly dispatched their patrol cars.

Our ordeal came to an end after two hours when our boy was brought home by some policemen in their patrol car. I thanked the policemen profusely. A policeman said,

“We found him near the highway with heavy traffic. A member of the public was petrified to see him crossing the road dangerously. Because he couldn’t get any contact details from your boy, he called the police.”

Blood drained off my face. And my wife broke down in tears as she held our boy tightly in her arms.

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

What You Can Do

The problem with ASD children is they look normal, and do not attract any attention until they display odd behaviour. They are likely to keep walking quietly without anyone noticing them. And if they are limited in communication, they will not be able to tell anyone their contact particulars. Unlike a lost child, autistic children often do not know how to seek help and attention. In such situations, having community awareness and support are crucial.

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

Here are three things you can do when an autistic child goes missing:

(1) Spread the news

The more people know the news the better. When the daughter of local blogger Lee Kin Mun, better known as mrbrown, went missing seven years ago, social media played a pivotal role in helping to find her. The girl was found 1.5 hour later by a train station staff member and then Mr Lee’s friend.

(2) Offer your help

After I offered to be part of the search party for the missing child X two days ago, the boy’s father told me,

“Thank you! Police are on the lookout now and the public has been helpful to spread the news. Another helpful dad like you digitally modified my boy’s attire to his school uniform, as he went missing in his uniform that day.”

These are the little things we can all do for the affected family. Do what you can.

(3) Keep a lookout

Safety is the key consideration in such situations. And time is crucial. Most children can be found within hours if the public keeps a watchful eye. The search becomes complicated if it is extended to days.

Your alertness in keeping a watchful lookout has the power to lessen the agony of families and can possibly save lives. We have heard of reports of autistic children overseas who met mishaps like car accidents, drowning or even falling prey to predatory characters. Let’s help to prevent tragedies from happening around us.

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

It Takes A Village To Raise A Child

On hindsight, that man who made that insensitive remark probably meant well to offer a solution. But a GPS tracker is not a panacea to all runaway problems. It is not uncommon to hear of ASD children removing, discarding and damaging such costly devices. Other well-meaning parents also shared their ideas to tackle the problem.  Unfortunately, what works for one child may not work for another. In the case of X, it is already the fifth time the boy had wandered off this year despite the parents’ best efforts.  

I could only imagine that the parents had exhausted all solutions they know, and are truly at their wits’ end. Rather than jumping to the quick conclusion that X’s parents are probably not doing enough, shouldn’t we give them all the help they can get? I am indignant that X’s parents become an object of speculation that they were not vigilant enough.

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

Many parents I know keep a watchful eye on their ASD children, holding their hands whenever they are out, and training them to know how to find their way home independently to the best of their efforts. The truth is many parents, especially those with ASD children whose conditions are more severe, are perpetually living on a high alert mode. They do not have a life of their own. Their lives revolve around their care-needy children, as they juggle with work and family obligations.  But no vigilance by the parents alone is water-tight enough; this is where support from the community is crucial.

It takes a village to raise a child. If neighbours make the efforts to know and interact with one another, everyone will be watching out for one another. In an event of vulnerable children like X wandering off from home repeatedly, there will be more understanding and less criticism. In this way, we can move a step closer to becoming a more inclusive society where people exercise grace towards one another.

William W K Tan

26 April 2019