Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Dark Thoughts

My blog contribution to "Blogging against Disablism" Day

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-


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.


"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.


Maddy said...

Awareness and education are key for everyone. Both my boys have frequent explosive meltdowns. [and word retrieval disappears] However, 3 years ago this was several times an hour, now it is considerably less so as they mature and learn different coping mechanisms. I'm confident that yours and mine [!] will be model citizens by the time they reach the age of majority as they will have had the benefit of learning coping skills that others [typically developing individuals] have not been exposed to.

jennifergg said...

I agree...awareness and education are the keys. I don't know how to do this, though: I wish opening hearts and opening minds were as easy as opening a window. Still, we have no choice but to try.

Club 166 said...

Thanks, guys.

In re-reading this post, I think I come off as way too negative.

I, too, fully expect my son to continue to mature, and think he'll be OK if he makes it to the age of 21.

It's the time between 12 and 21 I'm worried about...

The Jedi Family of Blogs said...

Wow. Although Brendan is not black, I understand your concerns about a growing boy & unpredictable behaviour. I used to think that it would be safe to call 911 if we found ourselves in a situation where Brendan were hurting himself & we couldn't stop him, but I am increasingly unsure about how safely he'd be treated... I also see amazing growth & maturity in my son, especially in his ability to reflect on his behaviour & positively change what he does, but unpredictable things do happen... The fear is in the back of my mind, too. So, I wouldn't worry too much about occasionally focusing on the negative- you're doing a great job of being proactive & also acknowledging what any (IMO) good parent does- that someday we must relinquish our kids' lives to them, with all the uncertainty involved.

abfh said...

You don't necessarily have to give a teenager a car at age 16, just because some of his friends are driving. That decision should be based entirely on the quality of his driving skills and whether he is mature enough to make good choices while driving alone.

My parents never gave me a car, although they did pay for me to take a driver's education class so that I could get a license. I rode a bicycle in college and had to buy my own car afterward. I think they made a reasonable decision, as I didn't feel comfortable with driving for many years because of sensory issues and only took the car on short trips (I did get used to it eventually).

There are two autistic teenagers in my extended family at the moment. One is 16 and the other is 17. They're slowly learning to drive, although they are quite nervous about it. I don't foresee either of them doing much driving alone until they are much older.

Anonymous said...

It's hard not to have these types of fears. We have been dealing with some issues with TJ that makes we wonder what is around the corner for him.

I try to remind myself how far he has come. He has learned to hurdle some difficulties that I thought 4 years ago that we would never overcome. 9 years is a long time. So much growth and change can happen in that time years.

You and Liz are such great parents to be working this from both angles, promoting systemic change and education your child. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and fears. It is a good reminder for me of the many things that members of priveldged groups in society take for granted. We all need to stand up for all forms of discrimination.

Club 166 said...

<...You don't necessarily have to give a teenager a car at age 16, just because some of his friends are driving. ...


No, I would never give either of my kids a car when they were 16 (no matter how much Sweet Pea whines and bats her lashes at me). I probably wouldn't ever give either a car, but I might change my mind once they're out of college.

I was speaking of a driver's license, which would imply that he would drive sometimes. And I did say "...should my son acquire a driver's license. ..."

I wholeheartedly agree that the decision would be based on a multitude of factors, including degree of driving skills and maturity. But raising teenagers is also about letting them expand their horizons, and I'm just worried that I might make the wrong decision, and that a rare flare of temper might come at the least opportune moment and result in disaster.

abfh said...

Well, on the bright side, an autistic teenage driver is much less likely to get in an accident while having a lively conversation with three or four passengers and chattering on a cell phone at the same time...

Daisy said...

Dangerous Encounters: Avoiding Perilous Situations with Autism is a book that might help you. I'd like to ease your fears, and this book won't, but it may give you ideas to deal with or prevent problems exactly like this.

Mom without a manual said...

I totally understand your fears. Autism alone makes those situation worrisome but when you factor in the race issue it does get down right scary!

I have no doubt that you will do your best to help Buddy Boy learn to control his inner workings. All we can really control is ourselves so I guess that is where to focus. However, pushing for law enforcement training is also a huge win-win! Thanks for that link. Our support group here locally has been talking about pushing this issue as well.

Hang in there. I know the world can be a scary place but we will get our kids through it.

Club 166 said...


I know you're injecting a bit of levity, but you're right. The amount of distraction and decrement in performance from having discussions like that has been compared in studies to being legally drunk.


Thanks for the book referral. I haven't heard of it. I'll have to look it up.


Parenthood is never a guaranteed process. I appreciate your support.


J said...

Great post, Club. Thanks for your insights.

Philip. said...

What a great post!


mumkeepingsane said...

Thank you for such a personal and thought provoking post.

Those fears will always be with us I'm afraid. My fears adjust as Patrick grows but never seem to diminish in intensity or number.

Relating with law inforcement is a tough one that I do worry about for the future. I'm trying to get a speaker to come educate the law enforcement officers in my city on how to recognize and deal with autistic children, teens and adults.


Aside from sensitizing your son to law enforcement hair triggers, what can yo do? Do you tell him to announce to the officer that he is autistic and may react peculiarly? Seems somewhat to be an invasion of privacy, but it MIGHT just help. Would that even make a difference though if the officer is not properly trained?

mysamiam said...

This was so powerful. I completely understand your fears, from the parent of an autistic child to the teacher/advocate for minority youth. I have taught inner city youth, mostly African American pre-teen boys most of my career. The situations that just these 12-14 year olds would encounter with law enforcement for simply walking across a street scared me. They know they are constantly watched. I often wondered if it was coincidence or planned that the full time police liason officers office was right next to my classroom that housed the alternative ed/self contained program which served 20 young black teens. I hear you!!!

As stated earlier, education and awareness is key. There is a program to teach Fire/Police/EMT about autism sponsored by Autism Society of America. They trained all of the Minneapolis staff a year ago. I received an invite from ASA to attend free as a parent, and it made the local newscasts as well. I was not able to attend, but it looked good. Best wishes on your quest. Check out the ASA site too to help you!!! Blessings!

mumkeepingsane said...

Hmmm, I'm wondering if it would help or hinder a person if they said outright "I'm autistic" in a situation where they're facing law enforcement???

Also wanted to say thanks for the lovely comment you left on my pity post. It helped...really it did. Thanks.

Tokah said...

Thank you for you post, it hit hard. My friends with mental impairments are all white, and I never considered what it would be like if they weren't.

Just a minor, point, though -
"You're not confined to a wheelchair..."

He isn't, but neither are the rest of us. Wheelchairs are good things, they get us from the floor or the bed to where we want to go. I'm not tied in! ;)

Club 166 said...

Thanks, Tokah, for the correction.

At first I was like "I said that? Really?"

Time to clean up my own language. I spent a year using a chair, following surgery when I was 13 years old. I guess I haven't updated my language since then. :(


kristina said...

Sorry it's taken me till now to read this----I'm very interested in the intersections of autism and race, is that is the right way to put it. Things are different for Charlie who is white, half-Asian than for Buddy Boy(though the new associations that the American public might have about young Asian males may been changing after recent current events.....). It's unlikely that Charlie will ever drive or be in some situations without another party, but---us having had a few encounters with the police----educating law enforcement officers about autism is essential.

The father of two autistic children in one of Charlie's old classrooms was a cop.