During lunchtime on Sunday, July 5, the police knocked on our front door. When we opened the door, the officer informed us our neighbors had complained about the noise coming from our apartment. The “noise” was coming from our 7-year-old son with autism and speech delay, who earlier was running and jumping.
Given his sensory issues, we cannot help the “noise” our 7-year-old makes. His shouting, leaping, dancing, jumping and stomping are unpredictable. We instruct him to “walk like you are in school” when moving throughout our apartment. We practice with him how to softly jump and how to do a soft dismount off the trampoline his school’s occupational therapist recommended we use. We redirect him when he stomps on one foot out of frustration. We reward him for quiet walking.
“This is the noise they are complaining about,” I said, lifting my 7-year-old and bringing him to the front door. I wanted the officer to see the “reason” behind his call.
Fortunately, our discussion with the officer deescalated the situation. Our 7-year-old stayed quiet and calm, sitting on the floor mat nearby, but our 8-year-old was unsettled. He broke down and cried. I hugged him and asked the officer, “Before you go, would you mind reassuring our son that everything is OK? He is really shaken up by having the police called on us.”
The officer bent down and looked our son eye to eye. In a father-figure tone, he reassured him that none of us were in trouble. He asked our son what grade he was in and about the things he liked to do. I told the officer that he is in the district’s gifted and talented program and about the different projects they build such as model cities and squirrel-proof bird feeders. I wanted to humanize our son and our family.
As an African American mother, humanizing my family to others has been at the forefront of my thoughts and actions ever since becoming a mother, especially with interactions with the police.
Since the boys were babies, whenever we have taken strolls in the local parks and bumped into an officer or sheriff, I have always made it a point to introduce myself and my sons to them and vice versa. Then and now, it is my hope that whenever an officer sees us, they recognize us as part of the community because (ideally) I as my sons’ mother have built enough social capital that the police see we are not a threat.
We thanked the officer. After closing our front door, we sat quietly. Scared. Angry.
Without having to say it aloud, my husband and I knew what just went down. Our neighbors had weaponized the police against us. So much is at stake for our family whenever the police are called to our home. This could have ended differently had we not been practiced in how to present ourselves, and more so, fortunate to meet an officer with civility, good training and humility. We have a litany of names this year alone, and historically, as to why this concern is justified.
Like our eldest son, our 7-year-old is not unscathed. The day after the police visit, while sitting next to his father, he let out a sudden yell like nothing we had ever heard. Yelling like a lost animal, wounded and stranded, in a place we did not know how to reach, let alone how to retrieve him. Yelling from a place, we guessed, of angry helplessness. While not yet able to verbalize what he feels, he is highly capable of showing it.
Ever since the police visit, we have been peppered with his harsh screams. July is when his extended school year started, but because of the pandemic, all his classes and therapies were now virtual. He continued this aberrant screaming. His occupational therapist and autism support teacher noted his atypical and unusual behavior and told us they would seek the school’s board-certified behavioral analyst’s guidance and intervention. Like us, they too were unnerved by this newly triggered behavior now taking root in an otherwise bright, compliant and doting child.
My family is trying hard to make the best of our lives within the walls of our small apartment. Our kids are active. Our eldest loves all things Star Wars and is always innovating new Jedi moves, to the chagrin of our walls, couch and floors. The agility of our youngest rivals those of ballet dancers and gymnasts. As brothers, they tussle. As a family, we dance to Kidz Bop and disco music. We are just like any other family.
Across apartments, across state lines, we are all living among one another’s disrupted routines and discombobulation. Trying to peacefully exist. Everyone is home with few outlets for escape. All of us are being pushed supernaturally in our tolerance of one another.
But, as conscientious citizens, we all can at least try to be empathetic about one another’s living situations. And hopefully, not intentionally engineer bringing one another into harm’s way. Especially children.
Luckily, our 7-year-old has us to speak for him and advocate on his behalf.
But, given his speech delay, we fear what may occur as he gets older and becomes a young man. What happens if he is by himself or walking alone, having a bad day, and, in his case when he expresses frustration, makes aberrant noises, or in his own way of self-preservation, falls to the ground and curls himself into the shape of a pretzel? How will his behavior be interpreted by neighbors or passersby? Will they deem his behavior as unstable and endangering? What will they tell the police? And how will the police construe (or misconstrue) the call?
We are not always privy to know what is going on behind each other’s closed doors. Speaking for our son with autism, this pandemic has taxed his vulnerability. He is in a tough place given his diagnosis, made tougher by staying sheltered in his home.
He is coping with our new daily life through the resurgence of spitting and hitting (which were extinguished back in kindergarten when he was less able to communicate through words), running and jumping (he still needs to move), hiding in closets or unlit bathrooms (to be alone), hopping on one foot like a jackhammer (when he is angry or frustrated), and running water in the bathroom and kitchen sinks (for sensory stimulation).
All the people, places and things that were bringing out the best of him are shut down. The clinic where he was receiving his applied behavior analysis, speech and occupational therapy sessions abruptly went out of business due to the pandemic. Over the summer, his fantastic school and support staff were reduced to only working with him remotely. Peer interaction with his autistic and general education peers became nonexistent.
Still, what this experience is teaching me is a lesson in tolerance and humanity. We are all struggling emotionally and economically in coping with the abrupt change in our lifestyle this pandemic has caused. So, we should try to deal with one another from a position of compassion.
One of the greatest places of compassion has been from our police department. Our community liaison officer contacted me the day after I emailed him asking for advice about our circumstance. At his urging, we listed our son on the special needs registry so that going forward all officers have advance notice of his disability. His support and affirmation were a welcome change, especially in these politicized and polarized times.
My family’s current fear is what is next. Our school district has gone completely virtual for the rest of 2020. For children with individualized education programs, it is experimenting with a hybrid model, which brings with it its own new set of worries. This October, our youngest son starts ABA therapy after school in our home. It is highly likely our kids will be in virtual schooling for the entire school year.
What will happen if we make too much “noise” again?
Moving forward, not in bitterness but in benevolence, we are taking steps to support our community’s growing awareness of children with special needs. My husband has applied to become a member of the township citizen board to build awareness about autism. I am working toward the same by writing children’s literature with children who have autism spectrum disorder as central characters.
I share this story because we are all in the same situation. In some form or other, we are working, schooling and living most of our hours inside our homes, trying to live one day at a time until a vaccine becomes a universal reality.
In this intense test of personal strength and resilience, the pandemic calls for us to examine what it means to be conscientious neighbors. I write to appeal to all in our community to minimize weaponizing the police beyond their rightful call of duty, and instead use goodwill to support each other in adapting to life in these unprecedented times. My sons’ lives depend on it.