Healthy Living

How Do We Protect Our Children With Autism From Risky Run-Ins With Police?

09/19/2017 12:51am ET | Updated September 20, 2017
Photo by: Kristin Sartore

Today in the news, I witnessed one of my greatest fears ― a teenaged boy with Autism encountered a police officer who misunderstood his behaviors and proceeded to take him down with force.

As I watched the video in horror, my eyes filled with tears, a lump formed in my throat, and my stomach tied in knots. This could have been my son. It is why I have delayed allowing him to get his driver’s license even though he is now 17 years old.

My son has what is considered high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”). Like many on the spectrum, he also suffers from Auditory Processing Disorder, meaning he needs additional time to understand and process verbal commands. When not given the time to process and fully understand, he can become upset or frustrated and sometimes confrontational.

Further complicating matters, my son has the misfortune of suffering from these intellectual disabilities and processing disorders while outwardly appearing like a completely typical teenaged boy. And herein lies the problem ― for him and for law enforcement. How do I ensure that, in the event he is stopped by an officer who does not realize he/she is dealing with someone with an intellectual disability, he will be afforded the opportunity to comply, or to question in an appropriate manner for clarification, as we encourage him to do?

I will preface this by saying that I am by no means a “cop-hater.” I have an abundance of respect for law enforcement and appreciate that they are confronted daily with life and death judgments that must be made quickly. That said, I cannot help but be horrified that in a matter of seconds this incident escalated to the degree that it did. I quickly began looking for more video trying to find something that would put this encounter in context in favor of the officer. I was secretly hoping that this child might have acted physically or verbally aggressively toward the officer (not just backing away, as he clearly did in the video). I thought perhaps he might be carrying something that could be perceived as a threat by the officer. To my horror (and can I say disappointment?) there was not. He was carrying a string.

I watched the Buckeye Police Department press conference defending the actions of the officer. This is not surprising. But as a reporter pressed for more information about the qualifications of the “drug detection expert” involved in the incident, the representative stammered and appeared to have difficulty providing any justification of his expertise or his training with respect to being able to identify someone with an intellectual disability. She described that the officer drove around and witnessed the teen as appearing to have been under the influence of drugs in his “expert” opinion.

This still begs the troubling question of whether someone under the influence, who is not acting in an aggressive manner toward anyone, including the officer, should be subject to such a rigorous arrest. But these are questions that can be debated endlessly both for and against the officer, and that is not my question. My question is, how do we protect our children with Autism from ending up in this very situation?

“The blue lines of law enforcement and Autism blurred.”

As a parent, watching the video fills me with rage and, instinctively, I want to go “mama bear” on this and condemn the officer with my outrage. But upon reflection, I cannot help but be struck by the irony in this incident. Individuals with ASD can have difficulty understanding and interpreting nonverbal behavior and cues that can result in meltdowns. In the brief encounter between this officer and this child, they became more alike one another than we might initially realize ― the blue lines of law enforcement and Autism blurred, resulting in an unfortunate incident born from misunderstanding.

Whenever the emotions of my son’s meltdown subside, I have often found myself feeling heartbroken for him that, despite his good intentions, sometimes he just gets it wrong. He is frequently depressed and distraught by his own behavior resulting from his misunderstanding, and we regroup to try to figure out how we can better handle in the future whatever triggered the meltdown. As I reflect on this, I can only imagine, and hope, that perhaps the same might be true of this officer. He made a judgment and misread the cues. It ended badly (though not near as badly as it could have), and since I subscribe to the belief that most law enforcement are amazing human beings who fulfill their duty to serve and protect, I choose to believe that regret may be the case for this officer, as well, and that there is much to be learned from his experience.

As I watched the livestream of the police press conference, I was distracted by the comments of other viewers. If you have ever read commentary of online media, you can imagine this ranged from supportive to downright hateful. Some bashed the officer for his actions, some blamed the media for scrutinizing and sensationalizing the incident and, of course, some blamed the parents. Why would they let their 14-year-old with Autism out on his own, they asked?

I fought back the urge to comment myself and plead, “What else should we do!?” Are we as a society really saying that these kids should not be allowed to experience the world away from our side? Is all the work I have done over the years, and all the work that lies ahead, directed at preparing my son to achieve a level of independence that affords him the ability to drive, have a job, and live on his own as a contributing member of society so outrageous and putting him at risk, instead of accomplishing what it is intended to do ― allow him to live a normal, independent life?

Is there no forgiveness left in our system to first attempt to understand someone prior to attacking them?”

Are we really asking that families be forced to tether themselves to any child that does not possess the intellectual capability to immediately conform even though they possess other skills that enable them to live sufficiently independent? Once those parents are gone, who then will care for these kids/adults? The mental health system barely has the resources to provide the necessary services for these children while they are still in our care, much less when they become adults who should, in theory, live on their own. At what point is it acceptable for us to allow our children to venture out in the world and test some of their developing skills like any other child? And is there absolutely no forgiveness left in our system to first attempt to understand someone prior to attacking them? I understand these are not easy questions to answer, and that the answers themselves are likely quite complicated. But we need to figure it out. I need to figure it out because I am not going to live forever, and God-willing, my son will live beyond me. And then what?

I hope that the teen involved in this incident and his family are okay. I know first-hand that this incident is likely going to imprint on this child forever, and that, in and of itself, will further complicate things for him in the future where law enforcement is concerned. These kids do not easily let go of negative experiences. But for the rest of us, I hope we stop and take a breath and take a good, long look at this and learn something from it. Complaining about the problem does nothing to solve it, and there must be a solution. Certainly more training for officers to be able to better identify behaviors of individuals on the spectrum and other intellectual disabilities would seem ideal. But that is not as cut and dry as it would seem since many who are intellectually disabled do not outwardly appear so, and the timing an officer has to make this determination can be frighteningly brief.

Scripting social situations is a critical aspect of working with individuals on the spectrum, and perhaps more can be done there to help prepare these individuals for what to expect when they encounter law enforcement, and vis-a-versa. That also is easier said than done, however, since a characteristic of ASD is the literal and rigid thinking these individuals exhibit. This does not easily lend itself to adaptation in real life. We can tell our kids if an officer stops you and asks “x” then “y” is the appropriate response (but perhaps not “why?”). The problem becomes when the officer does not choose the precise language the individual was trained to identify and is left to his/her own devices to try to process the request. Some states have considered an ID that identifies the individual as having ASD. This seems like a viable solution in theory also, but I imagine there are many variables that come into play with that ― some legal with respect to violating health privacy laws, and some simply logistical ― misplacing an ID or not being asked for it.

My heart is heavy with anxiety as I now add this to my pile of worries to ponder as I fall asleep tonight. Do I show my son the video and explain that it is important that you comply with any directive an officer gives, and hope he understands when that happens and blindly trusts this will not happen to him? Will this video have the adverse effect and scare him of all law enforcement and become a concrete outcome in his mind? The child in the video stated directly that he was stimming (a self-soothing behavior characteristic of individuals with ASD) and likely felt this was all the information the officer needed to understand that he was on the spectrum, so what other language do I teach my child to give when/if stopped? And all of this assumes that he has even been given ample time and opportunity to understand what is asked.

It is certainly worth noting that there are many wonderful stories out there of law enforcement and first responders forging special bonds with the ASD children who idolize them. This is but one, significant, yet unfortunate incident, and I understand that this topic will likely generate some heated feelings. I sincerely hope that any resulting discussion of this incident be a civil one, respectful of all parties. I see no value in vilifying the child, the officer, or the parents in this, and hope only that we seek understanding and a solution to a problem that, with a growing population of people on the spectrum, is likely going to be one faced by many now, and in the future. I have no answers here, but if Autism has taught me anything, it is that misunderstanding is never an excuse for bad behavior, but it almost always provides an opportunity to learn why something has happened so it does not happen again.