On a warm May night in Praia Da Luz, 2007, a three-year-old girl called Madeleine McCann mysteriously vanished from her bed.
There was no trace of her leaving, no evidence of her being kidnapped or harmed, no nothing – just mystery shrouded in darkness. But then yesterday a glimmer of hope took the world by storm after the story of an English-speaking homeless girl in Rome sparked speculation that it may be Maddie herself.
As most predicted, the girl was not Maddie but a young Swedish woman known as Embla Jauhojärvi who had been missing since May and suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome.
Due to the viral status of the story her father was able to identify her as his 21-year-old daughter, a student from Stockholm, who mysteriously vanished from her family home six months ago.
Somehow Embla ended up in Rome but due to the severity of her Asperger’s she quite quickly slipped through the cracks of society and became lost in a labyrinth of hard living and confusion.
Though Embla’s parents reached out to police in Italy they were unable to help as Embla was an adult and technically not a missing person.
However yesterday wasn’t the first time that the police were involved with Embla as a matter of months ago a concerned member of the public brought her into a Rome police station telling officer’s that Embla needed help.
A police spokesman said:
She told us her name is Maria and that she is English and said she was 20. But the date of birth she gave us would make her 21. We let her go because she hasn’t done anything wrong.
Sadly, Embla quite simply had nowhere to go and was evidently in a state of desperate confusion and disarray so went back to the only place she could – the streets, sleeping rough in a Piazza in the capital city.
But just how easy is it to fall through the cracks of society when you are alone, in a different country, lost, confused, and suffering from a lifelong condition such as Asperger’s Syndrome? Harrowingly it is simply too easy.
Speaking to UNILAD, Clinical Researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, Hannah Hayward, explained:
To suffer from a mental health / psychiatric condition automatically makes you 25 per cent more likely to end up on the streets, but with AS (Asperger’s Syndrome), it can happen even if you have merely not been able to link up with the appropriate services and agencies, such as mental health support, employment/education support et cetera.
Interestingly boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with an ASC (an Autism Spectrum Condition) than girls but this does not mean there are not more females affected by this condition, they just slip through the system as they present differently, often masking their symptoms, or, are picked up for other conditions such as anxiety, eating or personality disorders.
Therefore, it is frighteningly easy for women, like Embla, to become disconnected as they may seemingly be able to cope with their condition better than their male counterparts.
Despite there being countless professionals and people out there who want to reach out to such people there is often a missing ‘link’ in the chain between the female getting diagnosed (which in itself is a tricky and complex process) to actually being funded or supported.
It strikes me that Embla is rather intelligent and capable and this makes her even more vulnerable to missing out on the access to services she deserves – a case of she *seems* like she can cope/is okay so we do not need to worry or spend as much time on her as we would a seemingly more ‘in need’ boy/someone who presents as with more ‘severe’ symptoms.
By its very definition Asperger’s is a lifelong developmental condition which affects the way people interact and the way they perceive the outside world.
According to the National Autistic Society, people with Asperger’s ‘say the world feels overwhelming and this can cause them considerable anxiety’.
Now imagine suffering from such a syndrome when you are utterly alone, scared, confused, lost in a country that doesn’t speak your native tongue, and subsequently homeless. I simply can’t even imagine just how crippingly horrible that must be.
But how do they slip through the cracks? One theory is that people who suffer from a form of autism actually choose to adopt a life on the streets because it gives them a sense of control and power over their own lives.
Speaking to Vice, Liza Dresner, manager of Resources for Autism, stated:
People with autism want to be in control – it makes them feel safe. For somebody with autism, weird as it sounds, being on the street may feel much more like they’re in control than in a hostel, where they’re having to engage with other people, where the environment is really alien.
However, of course, that isn’t to say that we should let people with autism sleep rough. Dresner claims that we simply have to force people who suffer from conditions such as autism to be indoors and to focus on improving their communication skills rather than just letting do as they please, so to speak.
All I’m doing is getting people to think differently. The big difference is saying: stop talking so much, stop trying to get people to make lots of choices.
Instead, say: “This is the rule.” You have to be honest and say, ‘There is no choice – you’re going indoors. That’s been the big difference, but people are very uncomfortable with that because we’re all about allowing people to make choices. It’s totally alien to what everybody’s been told, but I don’t care – I’m telling people anyway and it’s working.
Though it may sound radical, surely this is one of the only ways to make sure that people such as Embla get off the streets, where they are at risk and vulnerable, and into a place where they can be looked after and where Embla’s parents would be able to get in touch with their daughter with a lot more ease.
Another interesting but harrowing fact is that upto 85 per cent of people with Asperger’s are unemployed and as you can probably imagine most people who end up on the streets do so as a direct result of being unemployed.
Caryssa Kramer was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 11 and said:
Many aspies who don’t have the support they need would end up on the street. Even if they qualify for and receive benefits, the amount these benefits give (even to those in the “not required to work” category) isn’t enough to live off of. It’s either rent, or everything else.
If someone in this scenario wanted to eat, they’d have to live on the streets. If they want a roof over their heads, they’re going to have to beg for food or starve. Since aspies don’t approach people, it’s probably the second one. But they would just choose to spend their money on food instead, I’d hope. Nobody deserves to starve to death. That is a painful and slow death.
Sadly, Caryssa added:
I have quite a strong fear of being homeless though, as it’s certainly a likely reality for me at some point in my life. Being a young (and decent looking) woman doesn’t help my case if I’m on the streets, since you know what kind of people are out there at night. Our city’s drop in centre is downtown, but so are the creeps who could do all sorts of things.
Maybe I’d end up with a roof over my head (and some pretty sore ladyparts) against my own will at that point, who knows? I doubt that would last long once they realized that the girl they took was “off”.
It’s a scary reality to face, but I’d imagine that this is a common fear among those with Asperger’s who aren’t fitting into society so well.
As I write these words, Embla’s father Tahvo is travelling to Rome where he hopes to take Embla back home to Stockholm for a reunion with her family, but the dark reality is that in most cases of people suffering from Asperger’s on the streets – there is no fairy tale ending of saviour.
Hopefully someday soon there will be a service in place that can make sure people such as Embla, and the thousands of others across the globe who will never have the chance to go viral and be found by their families, get off the streets and find somewhere to go.
Joseph Loftus is a Gold Standard NCTJ journalist with four years experience working for international and regional press.
As well as working for UNILAD and LADbible, Joseph has worked as Liverpool Correspondent for Unsigned & Independent Magazine, as well as stints with the Liverpool Echo and Warrington Guardian.