Let us, for the time being, put aside the very real problem we have (in America) with people being shot by the police, and the police being shot by people. Either way, it is a problem. Police officers have a job to do, and it is a dangerous job; in the exercise of their obligations, they carry weapons, and -regrettably- there have been several instances of preventable deaths of innocent citizens at the hand of police officers discharging those weapons. People have reacted to this viscerally. I don’t just mean by protesting -which we are entitled to do because the Constitution guarantees us the freedom to do so- but by killing and wounding police officers who have been exercising their duties during public protests, or simply while doing their jobs elsewhere.
I am not going to address that aspect of the gun violence that permeates our lives because I feel that this is not the place to do it, but I will address an issue that -as the parent of an adult individual who is firmly placed in the more severe end of the Autism Spectrum- gives me daily pause. I want to address the issue of training.
Now, if you read this article you will see that the authorities were responding to a 9-1-1 call that stated there was a man in the street threatening to kill himself with a gun. The young man in question is a 23 year-old in the Autism Spectrum who had wandered off from his group home. He had a toy truck with him. A white toy truck. The young man, obviously, looks like a 23 year-old; he is burly, tall, dressed in the usual jeans and t-shirt outfit that many men his age select in the morning. He has facial hair, and he looks like a dude…just a regular dude. He is sitting in the middle of the street, and appears to be paying attention (but not particularly understanding) what is happening around him. His stance is not aggressive or apprehensive; he doesn’t seem anxious. He is not crying, yelling, expressing distress in any way. He is, basically, sitting there with his toy truck in his hand, and we assume that his behavior therapist has caught his attention and was trying to negotiate with him up until the moment the police showed up.
I have been there. I am sure many of you have been there, too. Our child (whether young or adult) is determined to do one thing, not really resisting, and we are trying to gently but firmly persuade them that it’s time to do something else. The person we are trying to communicate with is calm, but won’t budge. Sometimes they react loudly, and wave their arms to keep us at a distance. We are trying (sometimes when internally on the brink of tears) to keep calm and do what needs to be done. Sometimes we are doing this while people stare and judge, and comment amongst them. If the circumstances allow it, and the child (or adult) is not at risk, we take our time so as not to make the situation worse. We are thinking of the child (adult,) and we are trying to comply with the demands of the place and population that surround us. Have I picked J up (when he was light enough for me to do so,) and dragged him away from a dangerous situation? You bet your sweet ass I have.
I also have patiently sat and waited until I could persuade J to move when it was clear that forcing him would only cause him, me and the rest of the planet severe distress. The internal dialogue that takes place at those moments can be emotionally draining.
When I look at my son I see a 21 year-old man who weighs over 230 pounds, is over 5’9″ tall, has a mustache and a goatee, has powerful legs and arms. I think he is handsome, and imposing. I think he has a lovely smile. I can tell when he’s about to do something mischievous. I know he has ASD, and I see it in the way he moves and walks, scans the view while flapping his hands or waving his arms. He dresses like an average guy; shorts, t-shirts, a hat…
I know the world sees a big dude who can crush them, and he has a weird attitude. I know this because the world doesn’t stop to think maybe there is something extraordinary about my son. People have told me they thought he was my husband, boyfriend, brother, or gay friend. (Yes, someone thought the way he walks indicates that J could be my gay BFF…which I found interesting. Not insulting, just interesting!) There are several reactions that come with meeting J: awkward silence, hyperbolic enthusiasm, brief acknowledgement followed by a change of subject, and genuine acknowledgement followed by discreet questions about him. The last category is not as frequent as it should be, but one hopes that this will change over time.
In spite of our best intentions (and, trust me, we’re just brimming with those,) J can be disruptive and/or difficult to manage. Sometimes it’s not the right day to walk on a wet surface (the wet surface being the street or sidewalk;) at times it’s the direction of the wind. There are days when dogs are a bigger problem than others, and -of course- there are flying insects, birds, and that pesky problem known as airborne seed dispersal. Yeah. That can make a good day not so good. I’ve had to escort J home from the pool because a dragonfly touched the surface of the water…and he started screaming. That J’s data bank includes the dragonflies in Mickey and the Beanstalk…well….
The point is that I KNOW what I’m dealing with when I’m dealing with J. I know what strategies to use when he needs refocusing, calming, disciplining. I know when a situation is under control, and when it isn’t. I know when to ask for help, but I don’t always know who to ask for help because people are either distrusting, fearing, commenting amongst themselves. I worry that someone is going to look from a distance, make assumptions, and I will not have the ability (or opportunity) to explain to authorities that become involved what it is that is truly happening.
I have wanted, many times, to call the local police department and ask how they train their officers to interact with individuals with ASD. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to start. It’s not that I don’t think the police would listen, but I don’t know if they would consider this being approached by an overcautious, busybody private citizen. I don’t know if there would be eye-rolling taking place. Some people, regrettably, believe that this would fall under “special treatment,” and think we’re angling for something because we think our kids are “better” than the average member of the community.
All parents worry about their kids. All parents have fears and concerns. All parents have something that they mull over from time to time, and then discuss with their kids. This is true of parents that belong to minorities, parents who live in high-crime areas, parents who are not home when their kids get out of school, parents whose children walk home from school. It is not less true of parents of adults with ASD.
During the day, school age individuals with ASD are in a more-or-less controlled environment. When we take our children out shopping, or dining, or walking, or to the doctor, or to the bank the environment is less controlled; we are the ones who are the first intervenors if an unexpected situation arises. When the school organizes an outing, the people who work with our children assume the role of first intervenors. I don’t know of a single parent who wishes ill for anyone who works with their child. If the aides, teachers, therapists, drivers cannot count on being listened to when they explain a situation, what would that mean for the children themselves?
I understand that our social mores are stilted and broken. I understand that law enforcement officers have a right to be concerned about their safety in the current emotionally-charged social climate. I understand that private citizens have a right to be scared. Fear is the overwhelming factor, and it is -more often than not- propelled and supported by ignorance. Whatever reasons have led us to where we are, my friends, the place where we’re at is bad.
I don’t know how this should be addressed, or if it can be fixed. I just know that I am feeling a little more trepidation when I step out there. People are scared enough to confuse a toy truck with a gun so imagine what they would “see” if J is wearing his wrist brace because “it’s a bad day?”