One morning my oldest son decided he would wander rather than go to school, he was in high school at the time, when he chose to sit on the sidewalk in a predominantly white neighborhood because he was overstimulated at that moment, a woman looked at him as a black man in a hoodie scoping out her neighbor’s house. She called the Police on him stating that he was a burglar and without any questions the Police grabbed my son during a meltdown and threw him to the ground criminalizing his disability.
Courtesy of Dr. Lorena Brownlee, Project We are Autism and Aspergers (originally posted in 2015)
People with autism are seven times more likely to interact with police over their lifetimes, compared with people who are neurologically typical. People who are considered severe in their diagnosis struggle with comprehension and speaking. Over stimulation complicates life for all Autistic people no matter where you land on the spectrum. For a person with Autism, over stimulation is a daily occurrence and likely to happen every time you leave your home. Even for those of us considered high-functioning, we hear and see everything all at one time at the same volume and light is far more intensified for us. The process of being overstimulated goes something like this:
Many of us use the coping mechanism of hats, ear buds, headphones, earmuffs, hoodies, blankets or scarves. Just about anyway we can use an object that is soft to block out noise. For myself I wear hats and scarves, my youngest son it is a blanket that he can cover his head with and my oldest son is always in a ski cap with a hoodie covering his ears.
The downfall to that is he is also African American and the hoodie, the Autism and over stimulation is a recipe for disaster when encountering the police.
Over stimulation can prompt a bodily reaction for some spectrum individuals and the very last thing that a person near or at meltdown needs is someone grabbing them and trying to control what is happening or creating an interaction with that individual that can drive them to a violent fit. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that there really is very little understanding among many law enforcement personnel for these young men on the spectrum going through those moments of over stimulation, for them it is perceived as defiance or rebellion rather than Autism and with such a perception Autism is being criminalized at a rapid rate in many communities.
One morning my oldest son decided he would wander rather than go to school, he was in high school at the time, when he chose to sit on the sidewalk in a predominantly white neighborhood because he was overstimulated at that moment, a woman looked at him as a black man in a hoodie scoping out her neighbor’s house. She called the Police on him stating that he was a burglar and without any questions the Police grabbed my son during a meltdown and threw him to the ground criminalizing his disability. Never did they ask him any questions as to why he was so agitated. It was not until many hours later that the Police acknowledged his Autism but they never took accountability or apologized for their excessive and aggressive behavior.
The Autism community is no longer made up a just a few children with a social disorder as once believed by many, the Autism community is now 1 and 68 children and I will stress that is 1 and 68 reported cases. Not all cases are making National Reports particularly those cases in minority communities. Studies have shown that children from minority communities as less likely to receive an early diagnosis than Caucasian children. I personally can attest to the truth of that statement. One of my son’s was diagnosed before 2 years of age while my other son was 9 years of age. Same mother, same income, different ethnicities for each child. In my years of running a home for homeless “behaviorally challenged’ (as they labeled spectrum children at one point) children this is not the only example I can give you of this type of occurrence.
To date only 15% of Police departments offer CIT Training, a 40-hour training where participants learn how to recognize and effectively respond to someone having a mental health crisis. The reality is 40 hours of training in this area is not enough to qualify a person for interacting with people with Autism, I realize agencies may argue that but this is where you need to ask parents of Autistic children how well after many years of care taking they understand all their children’s issues surrounding the spectrum. Did they master their own children whom they live with in 40 hours? Please keep in mind that the 40 hours of training is divided between mental illness and brain disorders. 1.5 million people on the Autism Spectrum Nationwide calls for that 15% to become mandatory for all Police Departments to protect and serve their communities in a suitable manner.
This however, does nothing for the ongoing racial problems the African community suffers at the hands of Police and for the many Autistic minorities, yet another reason to worry.
Watching the Michael Brown tragedy I thought to myself, what if this had been Autistic person having a meltdown and that same officer asked repeatedly for him to put his hands up but he couldn’t take in what the Officer was saying because he was on overload. What happens then if all his behaviors are taken as a threat and statistically speaking Autistic boys are larger than those who are not, does he just get shot and killed like Michael Brown because of his inability to comprehend and communicate at that moment? This scenario is a real concern for parent with African American children on the spectrum and has already played out with wandering spectrum people who went to the wrong place at the wrong time.
Autism must not be criminalized and education for authority figures must be provided and mandatory for those intending on interacting with what is now a large and growing population of people. The trend of marginalizing and ignoring the condition of Autism spectrum individuals must end and protecting the rights of Autistic people ensued.
Excessive force, imprisonment and solitary confinement are not now nor will they ever be a way a helping the Autism community. The differences this community faces requires a hard look into the options on the table for spectrum people that have interactions with law enforcement personnel. Provisions involving treatment in facilities that are conducive for spectrum individuals must override the need to arrest them and take them to jail.
Dr. Lorena Brownlee gave the Art of Autism permission to reprint this article. Project we are Autism and Aspergers is a thirty-day project about autism “speaking with our own voice, telling the world who we are and telling our government how our lives can be better improved, with our own words. When we as a community of people stay silent we are doing an injustice to ourselves. Not all of us are capable of speaking for ourselves, some draw and some have trusted advocates and family members who speak for them and it is time that we stand up and let the world know that we are human beings…” Read more here.
Dr. Brownlee is a human rights activist. She is also on the autism spectrum.
Cover image courtesy of Kevin Hosseini.