Everyone has secret fears for their child with a disability. For some, it's that their child will grow up alone, without friends. For others, it's that their child will some day be institutionalized, with all the terror that may involve. For me, it's that my son will some day be shot and killed because of his autism. Or rather, because of the fact that he is autistic and black.
One of the less pleasant aspects of Buddy Boy's being autistic is that he frustrates rather easily, and responds in what are usually considered inappropriate and belligerant manners. Don't get me wrong. 95% of the time Buddy Boy is the sweetest kid you'd ever want to meet. His speech may be a little stilted at times, but he's loving, considerate, smart, and funny. He's progressed in his ability to control these outbursts as he's matured, but we still have a ways to go (and I don't even want to think about puberty).
The other day he ran off the sidewalk into the grass and crashed his bike. I had been pedaling ahead of him at the time.
"DAD!" he says, getting up. He scrunches up his face (looking angry), points his finger right at me, and continues-
"LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE. HOW DARE YOU!"
A few soothing words and a calm manner result, as they usually do, with a quick de-escalation of hostilities, and a response of
"I'm OK. Sorry, Dad."
And father and son continue on their way.
But every time such an episode occurs, there is a vague fear stirring in my gut, one which I don't often consciously acknowledge, it is so dark. One which tells me that 9 years from now, should my son acquire a driver's license, the following might occur during a traffic stop for a minor traffic violation:
"License and registration, please."
"What's wrong? I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING!"
"Just settle down, son."
The police officer lightly places his arm on Buddy Boy's. Buddy Boy flinches and pulls back. The police officer starts to get nervous at the large black angry teenager. He places one hand on his gun.
"HOW DARE YOU! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!"
"Keep your hands on the wheel".
In the moment, Buddy Boy does not process this as a command. He has just processed the request for his license and registration.
Buddy Boy's initial flare is starting to abate, and he quickly reaches for his wallet to show his license.
The reaching for his wallet is misinterpreted as him going for a weapon after being told to keep his hands on the wheel, and...
If you think this situation is far fetched, then you don't remember Amadou Diallo.
Liz and I are parents thru adoption. We are both white, and the kids are both bi-racial (African American/Caucasion). Buddy Boy's birthfather was built like a football player, and I expect that Buddy Boy will be a big guy, too. Before adopting, I considered that one of the biggest problems that we might face was racism. By the time Buddy Boy was two and a half, I realized that his (yet to be diagnosed) autism was probably going to be our biggest challenge. Now I realize that both may interact in the future to create unique challenges.
"Driving While Black" is a well documented phenomenon, that results in more blacks (especially males) being stopped for traffic violations, and more tickets and searches performed on them. It's an expected part of growing up black in America. Even black police practice racial profiling. And it doesn't matter if you're well dressed, or have small children with you. Johnny Cochrane (O.J.'s famous lawyer) used to be an Assistant District Attorney in Los Angeles. Once, while well dressed and driving home with his two young children in the car he was stopped by the police, who approached the car with guns drawn. They removed him from the car, and it was not until they found his badge that they backed off. It happens to blacks all across America every day. I do think the police need some lattitude in pulling over suspicious looking people. But they have proven time and time again that "all blacks look alike". It doesn't matter if the black person is well dressed or well mannered. What the police see is "potential criminal".
Autism is an "invisible" disability. You're not confined to a wheelchair, you don't need a cane, and your body moves just fine. [EDIT-Please see my follow up comments in "Et Tu, Brute"] In my son's case, he is also very verbal. His speech at times is stilted, and sometimes scripted, but it takes a bit to pick up on that. And when you have an invisible disability, people don't necessarily make (or feel they have to make) accomodations for you.
Police officers are trained to control situations. They are given authority to keep the peace, and they are also given wide lattitude in enforcing that peace. Citizens, for their part, are expected to defer to the authority of the police, and resolve conflicts in a court of law. One thing that the police, in general, have very little training in is relating to autistic citizens.
As a result of this lack of training, there are way too many opportunities for misunderstandings that result in escalation of a police officer's response. Police officers are usually trained in a "use of force continuum" where they are expected to use the least amount of force in order to obtain compliance. A little less than 20% of arrests involve some use of force, and use of force is reported to occur more frequently where drugs, alcohol, or mental illness is involved. Of note, initial levels of force usually involve the "laying on of hands" in some manner on the "suspect". When an autistic person reflexively recoils from contact with someone he doesn't know in a stressful situation, the police officer is then justified in moving up the ladder of the "use of force continuum". This may involve other "non-lethal" methods of restraining someone, such as Tasers, which can very definitely be lethal at times. Anytime the officer feels his life (or other citizens around him) are threatened, he is justified in using lethal force.
I have no hope of curing racism, bigotry, or racial profiling in the next 9 years. I do hold out some hope of influencing police forces' education and training in dealing with autistics. Why? Autism knows no barriers. Rich, poor, black, white, everyone gets autism. And statistically that means that even some police officer's kids are going to end up on the spectrum. I expect that in many departments some officers will speak up, and demand proper training for their peers. One study documented that autistics were 7 times more likely to have an encounter with the police than NT's were. It's in the police forces' self interest to get those encounters right. Signs of this beginning to happen are encouraging.
For my part, I have been writing my legislators to advocate for mandatory police training in autism for our state. And one of the things I am trying to instill in Buddy Boy is compliance with law enforcement officers. I hope they listen in time.