How to report missing adults with autism or learning disabilities respectfully.
By Elsa Matawan
It’s everyone’s worst nightmare; a loved one goes missing, and we fear for their safety. The stakes are even higher when the person has autism or a developmental difference. When dealing with older teens and adults, these unique sets of challenges open up an ethical debate over how to report the person. How much, if at all, do you reveal the challenges while maintaining the privacy rights of the person? Here are some tips on how to balance safety with respect.
Photos. Use as mature a photo as possible. Crop only the person’s face in the photo. Comfort items (stuffed animals,etc.) are personal and should be cropped out. Government issued ID is preferred.
Disclosing disability. How to disclose disability such as autism is a constant debate. How a person’s autism is disclosed is a personal matter, potentially affecting employment, and other aspects of personal life. In this case it was deemed beneficial to disclose autism. Autism first language, “she is autistic” is preferred by most of the autistic community. Many people use autism first language to self identify. Some prefer person first language, “she has autism”.
Either way, the emphasis should be on the missing person as a whole, not the autism. Therefore “missing person” not “missing autistic person” should be the headline. Some individuals may prefer gender neutral language as well.
Functioning levels. Phrases like “high functioning”, “low functioning”, and functioning age comparisons (comparing an adult to a child or teenager) is problematic. Adults with disabilities who may need some support do not identify this way. Many autistic people find age comparisons offensive since it implies that because some autistic adults do not lead a life similar to their neurotypical peers that they must be like children or young teenagers. No one would compare a physically challenged adult requiring assistance with a young teenager.
Functioning levels can fluctuate depending on stress levels,the task at hand, and physical or mental health. No one functions at their best when stressed. A more positive way to describe the person could be “under stress may appear younger” or “may not respond well under stress.”
Some people have significant learning disabilities, and may appear to act younger, or require a lot of personal care. However, these individuals likely have mature thoughts, feelings, and desires. One way to describe highly challenged people could be “requires personal care support”.
Verbal, low-verbal,or non-verbal descriptors are needed. (Some prefer the term non-speaking). Keep in mind some autistic individuals may prefer to write down information as their form of communication when under stress.
“Scared of uniform presence” sounds rather young. This kind of information, while important, needs to be written in a clear, respectful way that describes possible behaviour. A better description could be “needs a calm approach”, “may be wary of police”, “may flee”.
Sensory issues are common for people with autism or learning disabilities. One can write about these challenges in a mature way. An example: “Hates bright lights” could be more accurately be described as “is light sensitive”, “wears sunglasses”, “Please turn off flashing lights”, “This person is light sensitive, and may (feel sick, flee, have a seizure, or any other medical reaction to flashing lights)”.
It might be helpful to add a disclaimer on a missing persons news release stating “This report describes an adult under unusual circumstances. It may not describe or reflect the person’s usual state.”
Suggest that people who are prone to going missing write their own sample missing persons news release and give it to a trusted family member or caregiver. Set up an online missing person news reporting form for the family to fill out. Options could include a box to tick off if one doesn’t want disability disclosed in the news release. This would be separate from registries such as vulnerable persons registries.
In the found persons news release, thank the public for helping locate the missing person. Add “Please help this person regain their privacy by deleting both this message and the missing persons news release off any social media and/or websites once they are found alive”.
Consider posting only the name, photo, and age on social media. Add a link for more details.
The hashtag #MissingPerson (city acronym) would make missing social media posts easier to locate for deletion. Delete the link and post once the person is found. One could also add the hashtag #DeleteOnceFound on all tweets and posts to encourage the deletion of information
The Police’s role in helping an individual move on with their life once they’ve been safely found is important and appreciated. It shows understanding and compassion. Thank you for that. It means more than you know. #FunctioningLabels #FunctioningLabelsMean #FunctioningAgeLabels #FunctioningAgeLabelsMean #EndFunctioningLabels #EndFunctioningAgeLabels