Every once in a while, it’s useful for me to get out there and attend talks about how autism is perceived and handled in the community. Getting out of the echo chamber is really important because most of the time, we aren’t interacting with people who are disposed to recognize that our kids are autistic, or even if they are, they often don’t have any training or experience in how to deal with any issues that might arise.
This was a talk on police interactions with the autism community. A button pushing topic indeed. We all worry about whether our kids will fall outside the sphere of those deemed worthy of protecting, precisely because they themselves may be viewed as the threat.
The town is not the one we live in, but it is one that I spend a fair bit of time in, for social and community reasons. The residents are very passionate about their causes, and it is honestly a very good thing that they organized something like this. As someone who is merely a visitor, I didn’t want to weigh in, so I listened. But I am a concerned mom who holds people around me to high standards because the survival and happiness of kids like mine depends on people not throwing excuses at difficult situations. Asking us to be more frothy and lighthearted about such high stakes is really ludicrous, and downright reeks of passing the buck.
The two cops started out very kindheartedly, talking about which training programs they’ve undergone, and how they want to be there for our families. They emphasized the importance of cultivating a relationship with their department before it is needed. If we bring our kids to the station, they will allow them to play in a cop car. And if we are having a massive outburst situation in our homes, they even said they will come over and stay with our kids for a few minutes so parents can walk around the block or take a shower. One cop talked very emotionally about changing his friend’s autistic teenager’s diaper once, and getting a small peek into what life is like for autism families.
Up till there, it was all good. I did briefly suppress a groan when a mom stood up and told us that it’s important to tell our neighbors that we have autistic kids, because that’s part of overall safety. She said that we must not feel we have to be secretive or ashamed. I think a great many of us have never been ashamed of our autistic kids for even a second. If we don’t go out of our way to share with our neighbors, it’s because of fatigue, wanting some space from people since we get none in our homes, and also because we know that people’s general busyness often translates into an air of indifference, and we know how autism strains the bonds of polite distance. But anyway. Every family must navigate these things as they feel is right. Furthermore, people of color are somewhat less likely to have this sort of dreamy confidence in the wider community, especially as pertains to our brown and black kids who do not know how to behave in ways that reassure random observers.
Which brings me to the point at which the talk began to take a problematic turn.
It seemed like the cops began to impose a demand for understanding on us as autism parents. My eyebrows began to rise when they spoke of higher functioning people on the spectrum who are more likely to be employed, driving, and generally interacting with the world on their own, and how some of the classic autism behaviors they may exhibit could seem suspicious to the police. The examples given were that stimming could look like drug addict behaviors, and that not making eye contact could “build the case to potentially search the vehicle.” I had to pinch my wrist. Were they really bringing cop talk into it? They were.
Then they said that if people were to disclose their disability, the risk of an “escalated situation” could be lessened. Gotcha. Force people to disclose something that often gets them stigmatized, so that you won’t have to brutalize them.
I really don’t know how much more of this I want to write in detail because it was astounding. Here are some highlights, though:
-Pepper spray is NOT SO BAD
-People often calm down when placed in a restraint hold (what choice do they have)
-Home damage and injuries can be prevented if cops are allowed to overpower someone having an outburst
-Cops know that autistic people often carry comfort objects, but if they look like weapons, sorry, there are no guarantees
They gave as an example the much highlighted 2016 case in Florida. An autistic adult who was carrying a toy truck was with his therapist, Charles Kinsey. The cops I was listening to said “how the call comes in determines how we are primed.” I pinched myself again so I wouldn’t exclaim in horror. Apparently, someone thought they were looking at a hostage situation–that the autistic man was a bad guy who had a weapon and was threatening his victim. When the cops arrived, they shot Kinsey in the leg even though he was shouting that the person he was looking after was autistic, and was carrying a toy. At the talk, it was explained that the cop standing behind did not hear these words, so he opened fire.
That’s all it takes, folks. Vigilantes misreading a situation. Cops not hearing. Guns already drawn. Being primed.
If reading and listening to incidents like this do not show you how much our kids are canaries in the coal mine re what we normalize in the public sphere, then nothing I might write could change your mind.
What I heard were a lot of helpless rationalizations for the use of force. There is almost no mental health care for the severely autistic, especially the non verbal population. What should they do with this accumulated trauma? After the pepper spray has stopped burning, what should they do to process what was done to them? Do you think they can fathom how to alter their behavior so that passersby won’t misread? A great many of them have spent their lives being bullied by their peers. Why should this kind of treatment seem different to them?
I’ve written before about how my sister Shobha and I have talked about autistic people being seen as “ungovernable.” Indeed, they are in many ways. There are serious consequences for being viewed this way.
It is not enough merely to want autistic people not to disturb our sense of a civilized society. Policing as it is practiced today is not the best option for dealing with special needs, but so long as neurotypical comfort is the priority, 911 will continue to be people’s default go-to.
I invite you to reflect on how you might navigate the line between indifference and vigilantism in your own community. It is challenging, to be sure, but be assured that the autism families in your midst are straining to avoid negative attention every moment they are out of their homes. I don’t have easy answers either, but telling us to have more faith in community, without said community members doing any really difficult soul searching, is not a productive approach. Not seeing the police force as outright protectors does not mean we hate them. But it does mean that as caregivers, we have no real recourse if we do need crisis intervention, doesn’t it?