When a child with special needs got lost in Chennai

We need a robust, inclusive social framework that can help people with special needs navigate our roads and operate independently. How can we, as individuals, help?

It was just like any other routine bike trip for Madhav (name changed) and his father as they started on their cycles that early Saturday morning. Little did they know how adventurous, and even stressful, the day would turn out to be.

Madhav is an autistic teen, who enjoys cycling along with his father. This Saturday, driven by his instinct, he somehow rode away from his regular route while on the way back home after cycling for 2 hours. He had not been going for cycling for more than four months due to the COVID-19 lockdown, and that might have been the reason for this detour.

His father, when he realised that he had lost sight of Madhav, started tracking him through a GPS installed in Madhav’s phone. But Madhav had strayed really far. Madhav’s dad came back home in a panic and accompanied by his wife, drove out in his car to trace him.

They followed the route suggested by the GPS tracker on Madhav’s phone, which is usually enabled just to manage a situation like this, should it arise. They were led to an ice-cream shop only to find the phone but not Madhav. Madhav had visited the shop and had ordered an ice-cream. But he didn’t have money to pay and told the shopkeeper that his father would pay. He was chased away by the shopkeeper, who also seized his mobile phone.

Madhav was now without a phone. He was also trying to trace his father. He recalled his father’s workplace and assumed he could meet him there. He was unaware that the IT park was closed. The security guard outside the park stopped him. Madhav struggled to explain his need clearly to the guard. Tired and famished he parked his cycle outside the IT Park and went to sleep.

Before that, however, he managed to convey to the security guards that he was waiting for his father. He slept on the bench and woke up around 6 pm. He couldn’t find his cycle. Little did he know that the security had parked the cycle inside to keep it safe. By now, it was dark and the teen left for home, walking.

On his way, he met a food delivery personnel from Swiggy, from whom he requested some food. The Swiggy delivery man, true to humanity, gave him a pack of Upma. After his meal, he continued his walk from Taramani Cancer Institute to Rajbhavan and finally to Teynampet, where he was stopped by the police at around midnight.

Here the cop, understanding that he was lost, asked him to share his parent’s phone number which Madhav was able to tell. Clearly, none had asked him this before. The cops called Madhav’s father, and the relieved family rushed to meet him and took him back home.

In fact, when questioned by the police, Madhav was able to describe the route from Teynampet to home and mentioned that he was heading back home through Nandanam, Venkat Narayana Road to West Mambalam. He was aware of what he had done, but not why he did it. He didn’t know he was lost.

It was a traumatic day for Madhav’s family and they are lucky to be reunited after a brief separation. But, not every kid with special needs, who goes missing is able to get back with the family. Some are traced after months or even years while several are never found at all.

Wanted: A more supportive ecosystem

Two years back the city lost Praveen, a person with special needs, to an unfortunate accident. But even today, we notice the lack of awareness, sensitivity and basic human kindness.

Upon reflecting on Madhav’s incident, one can only wonder why the ice-cream parlour vendor was so keen to seize Madhav’s phone? Couldn’t he just have asked the teen to call his family from there and pay up? Couldn’t the security guard at the IT park have asked Madhav if he wanted to call his father?

But it is not just them. Most of us are either unaware of or insensitive to the needs of children and adults alike Madhav. Adults with special needs such as autism require support and understanding from society as a whole: public servants, common men, institutions and everyone who moves in a public zone.

We need a robust social framework that can help people with special needs, or conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, navigate our roads and operate independently without getting lost. Technology does provide some respite today, though not fully.

Recommended steps

Special Child Assistance Network (SCAN) is a support group for special needs families.

They give the following pointers on how the state, as well as caretakers and parents, can work together to enable children and teens with special needs to roam safely:

  • Ensure that the child has accessories such as a wrist band or a chain with contact details of parents/ caregivers or a GPS tracker in those accessories
  • Write contact details on the sleeve or on the back of the dress
  • Work with Police department to make use of Aadhaar information and build a system of accessing data to trace a person with special needs
  • Create volunteer groups in different parts of the city to support in search operations if needed

SCAN is also planning to come out with guidelines for parents, on what to do in case a child with special needs goes missing.

What can you do to help?

We are yet to find a solution to this problem. But the need of the hour is not only technology solutions that can trace people. As a society, we need to come together and do our bit if we spot someone with special needs wandering in a public place.

Often, we are not sensitised to identify when a person with special needs may be requiring assistance. Experts point out:

  • They are characterised by aimless wandering, unaware of the surroundings.
  • They generally avoid eye-contact and may not be able to articulate their situation very well.
  • They may not understand the danger of oncoming vehicles on a busy road.
  • They have repetitive action and may be hypersensitive to sounds. They will close their ears often to noise.

SCAN offers some insights on dealing with such individuals if you spot them

  • Talk to them gently – many are sensitive to loud sounds and they may not like people approaching them
  • Do not grab/touch them – may be sensitive to touch also
  • Speak calmly – do not expect response from them
  • Check for any identity cards, tracker objects, tattoo/pendant showing contact numbers, name/address

In case you don’t get any cooperation (which is expected behaviour), you can reach out to the nearest police station.

Alternatively you can also reach out to SCAN on the following numbers: +91 73056 78969 and +91 98409 31790.

Another channel is a government website, Khoya-Paya, which is specifically built to register, report or search for missing children.

Please accompany the lost person until help arrives. It is important for us to show patience and extend help wherever possible. Our individual actions and behaviour today will determine the kind of society we build for the future.


  1. Rama Lalithambal says:

    Very well written padma.. Neatly expressed.. Best wishes to you and wish this reaches and enlightens many

  2. Diwakar says:

    Well done. Good write-up

  3. Rajeshwari says:

    Padma…u have covered the sensitive topic comprehensively..Thanks for writing this..

  4. Anandakrishnan Elumalai says:

    Need of hour. The requirement inclusive education and employment to be created..

  5. Latha Magesh says:

    Amazing Padma for the awareness created and to remind the citizens of their social responsibilities

  6. saritha says:

    Clear and well articulated Padma. As you said, the need of the hour is being more aggressive on creating awareness. It’s not that people do not want to help but they do not know how to help.

    Awareness through various modes along with equipping the special needs adult will help a lot in handling similar situations

  7. Srividhya says:

    Very important article …for us as a society to care enough about the missing children and equip us with some needed basic tips in identifying and helping missing children..esp the one in the spectrum. Not every situation has a happy ending, but its within our hands to ensure we extend care and support. Thanks for the eye openers!.

  8. Robinson says:

    Good article. Contains useful information.

  9. Kiran says:

    Good article… it is a gentle reminder to the society that we have lots to learn and a long way to go…

  10. Ramaswamy says:

    This is a very clear article explaining why technology alone can’t solve this problem. Sharing this in my network

  11. Rajarajeswari says:

    Written crystal clear and comprehensible to everyone and will register in the public mind. Would love to be part of SCAN and be of any assistance possible of me..

  12. Ganesh says:

    Well written! Feel very sad on reading this as to what all autistic kids will have to go thro’ in a differently wired world.

  13. Nimitha R. Shukkoor says:

    Padma…very well-written article. The need of the hour is greater awareness among the public and government officials.

  14. Himali says:

    I did not know bout SCAN thank you so much for sharing. I have a suggestion: if SCAN team could have a group of volunteers who could help parents with special needs children to take them out n train them. In case it is available we would like to know the contacts. Thank you for sharing.. regards

    • Padma Kalyani says:

      Himali – SCAN (Special Child Assistance Network) is a very active support group. They periodically take children with special needs along with their families , as a group and visit public places. Please get connected with SCAN on Facebook.

  15. S.Sridharan says:

    I am very happy for Madhav and his family in the end. It was distressing to read how easily children with special needs can get lost. May God bless all.

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