Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
"Is he violent?" This question has been floating around in my head for the last couple of weeks. It frustrated me then. It frustrates me now. Why are people so quick to jump to conclusions?
Recently, a teenager in our community went missing. He has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and left home. The news story did not report whether he just wandered off, as so many parents have experienced, or whether he left home out of frustration and then became disoriented or lost or was afraid to come home because he would be in trouble. The details did not matter. A teen with ASD was missing, and he needed to be found quickly and brought home safely to his family.
Social media quickly became instrumental in helping to bring him home. Multiple sightings had been reported, not too far from his home but near busy and dangerous streets. The police set up a base camp and organized a party of people trained to help find him. Apparently police did ask for civilians unfamiliar with the child to not be involved in the physical search, but they reached out to news stations and social media and posted pictures and information to help, in case the boy was spotted. One thing they made clear: If you see him, please call 911. Do not attempt to approach him.
For those of us who understand autism, this is a given. Let the professionals work with him. Let them bring his family to him to assist in bringing him home unharmed. Groups and individuals shared his picture and instructions during the several hours that went by with sightings, near misses, and suggestions. People were eager to help find him and knew the police planned to bring his mother to him once he was found.
Most of us did not know if he was nonverbal or how profoundly impacted he is by his autism. We had no idea of his frame of mind, of his quickness to flee if approached, or if he would be put into more danger if he fled into busy streets or an abandoned building. So many people, so eager to help bring him home. Unfortunately, in any public forum, ignorance is sometimes displayed. There were few hostile comments, but several came from people who clearly did not understand why the boy should not be approached. Once comment hit a nerve: "Why should we not approach him? Is he violent?"
Whether the person intended to incite a reaction or was just curious, it was definitely an ignorant question. The person may not have meant to be hostile at all, but for those of us who know and love people with ASD, questions like that just sting. We work hard in the community to educate people about ASD and accepting and embracing those on the spectrum. It is almost laughable to us to think anyone with ASD would be violent. But our message is obviously not getting through to everyone.
Without knowing this teen at all, there are many reasons to accept that not approaching him is a good idea. Maybe he is nonverbal or has a difficult time understanding intentions of strangers. Maybe, after a night out on the streets, he is overwhelmed and scared, tired and hungry, and on sensory overload. Maybe he has a tendency to flee when scared or upset or to wander off and become lost. Since we do not know, the safest thing to do in any situation like this is to contact professionals and try not to intervene in any way unless the child is in imminent danger. Having the best of intentions does not mean we are capable of doing what is best for the child and, in fact, not knowing the individual can make a situation much worse since no one-size-fits-all solution exists.
Fortunately, our community kept social media updated, reported sightings, kept eyes on him from a distance when he was found, and helped lead the police to his location so they could bring his mother to him and be sure he was brought home safely. It was a happy ending to a scary scenario that any parent, particularly the parent of a special-needs child, always fears. My hope is that the person who questioned whether the boy was violent was carefully and tactfully educated on the potential 'whys' rather than continuing to make assumptions. While understanding and acceptance of ASD has come a long way, there is clearly more work that needs to be done.