Police officers are literal life savers, but when you put autism and police training together, sometimes the results can be catastrophic. First, there's the fact that verbal communication, even among autistic people who are normally fluent speakers, can and does become unreliable under stress. Then there's the fact that some of the symptoms of autism have been mistaken by bystanders and police officers as signs of drug use. And then there's not reading social situations. As you can tell, there’s a lot of potential for things to go heartbreakingly wrong.
And that, unfortunately, is exactly what has happened in far too many incidents. Autistic people have died in encounters with the police. Asphyxiated while restrained. Shot while not following police directions. Others have not died, but were certainly harmed. The 17 year old who was beaten by police officers. The many, many who have been tasered (to the point where when I Googled “15 year old autistic tasered” multiple incidents came up), some of which Caley told me were simply tasered for stimming, which was misinterpreted as being on drugs. These are just some of the incidents.
In all of these cases, mind, officers believed they were responding to legitimate threats. One man who was shot was reaching into his waist band (for what turned out to be a cell phone) and not responding to police commands. Another man who was shot and killed had been carrying a toy gun. The man who was asphyxiated had displayed self-injurious behaviors and then grabbed an officer’s shirt. The 17 year old who sat on an officer’s motorcycle and pushed the officer when he attempted to get the boy off and resisted being handcuffed. All of these cases, mind, were not for actual offenses. None of them had actually committed crimes. All of them were deemed suspicious and ultimately as threats simply by virtue of being autistic and displaying autism related symptoms.
It is sad, and it is scary, but it is also very, very real. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With training, both sides can learn to better navigate experiences with each other. It just so happens that Caley has experienced both sides of the solution.
Caley experienced a police encounter herself when her high school was locked down for almost the entire day. There were police officers everywhere to assess a potential threat. I’ll let her describe the situation in her own words:
“The police officers were going from room to room having people empty out their belongings and get scanned with a metal detector. A police officer with a gigantic gun was escorting the people who were scanning us around. And I asked an innocent question I think anyone could have asked. I just asked if there was a gun or a bomb in the school or something. And all of a sudden he got all freaky on me asking me what I knew about a gun. He was accusing me and his finger was on the trigger and that was a freaking huge gun and I was scared. I kind of like almost froze in shock, and the teacher said “Stop, stop!” and I started saying “I’m autistic, I’m autistic!” and I put my hands up. It did get him to stop. But it upset me that nobody told him the way he’d reacted was wrong. I had also been researching all the horrible and negative things that had happened with autism and police and that was also going through my head. All the people had really big guns and my schedule had already been upset.”
As you can tell, that was a rather no good very bad day for Caley. But this is actually an example of a police encounter that went relatively well, though I’m sure it didn’t feel that way to Caley. It went relatively well because she was able to tell them that she was autistic, and because she had people nearby to advocate for her. Yes, not reading the social situation led her to ask the question in the first place, yes, but had she lost her words or her symptoms been interpreted as drug use (as they are for many autistic people), that scenario would have played out worse.
But that is half of the solution – teaching the autistic person what to do to help smooth the interaction. For one thing, she knew what to say (and, fortunately, was able to communicate). She told the officer that she was autistic. That simple knowledge immediately helped the officer know how to react to her question. For another, she put her hands in the air, which may not have been absolutely necessary in her instance (although I’m sure it was helpful), but was the factor that led to a lot of those previously mentioned deaths. In fact, what she did aligns well with what advocates training autistic people on how to interact with police officers emphasize. “Don't run or reach into your pocket. Stay calm. Show them your hands. If you're handcuffed or put into a patrol car, be quiet, be patient, be still. If you're arrested, tell the officers you have a disability and ask to talk to a lawyer.”
At the same time, though, police need sensitivity training as well. Thankfully, here, too, Caley has done her part. A local autism organization hosted a sensitivity training for local police officers, and invited young adults all over the spectrum to come, to help show the officers that autistic people can very much vary from one another. Caley wasn’t at the training itself, but she did go to the meet and greet after the training where the officers asked her questions. I’ll let her describe the experience for you here, as well.
“I was treated like an idiot and had to prove each and every single one of them wrong.
Q: What’s your name?
Q: What’s your favorite color?
A: Green or black. Although black is a shade.
Q: Where do you go to school?
A: I go to university and I’m in the honor’s college. [Creigh's note: This line was delivered in a dead-pan, but rather sarcastic, voice that conveyed her annoyance.]
One of the younger ones served them, too. They asked him, ‘What’s your favorite game?’ And he responded ‘On what system?’ I think someone responded, ‘Oooh…burned!’ or something like that.
I’m glad I went because I got to teach them, but that was kind of annoying to be treated as a little kid.”
As you’ll note, it was critical for the officers to meet actual autistic people, because even after the training they still didn’t realize that autistic people could be intelligent, and would have been pretty unlikely to realize and/or believe that Caley and others like her could be autistic.
That’s the solution. Train autistic people and train officers. Because I think we can all agree, officers, autistic people, and community member alike, that a single death is unacceptable, and that with the right training, these are preventable occurances.
If you want to read up on where I got the stories I cited, or a program one mother of an autistic adult has put together to train autistic people on police interactions, check out these links.
[Edited to add: I just realized this post COMPLETELY neglected the intersection of autism and race. And that is, unfortunately, huge. Most of the autistic people killed that I cited were black or Latino. Parents of minority boys often express fear for their children in police encounters. Many of those of autistic children who are minorities express still greater fear. At the intersection of neurodiversity and racism lies a lot of misunderstandings and just plain biases, and that can be a lethal combination.]