In The Politics of Autism, I discuss interactions between police and autistic people.
Autistic people may have poor eye contact or engage in repetitive behaviors, which may strike police officers as suspicious. They also might be slow to react to police commands, which can cause a routine stop to spin out of control. In Greenville, South Carolina, one news account tells of an autistic man named Tario Anderson: “Officers said they saw Anderson walking on the sidewalk and tried him to question him. They said when they put a spotlight on Anderson, he put his hands in his pockets, started walking the other way and eventually started running from them. He was shocked with a Taser and arrested because he didn’t follow the officers’ commands.”[i] Anderson is also African American, which adds another dimension to the story. In the wake of incidents in which African Americans had died at the hands of white police officers, one father wrote of his autistic son: “What if my son pulling back from a cop is seen as an act of aggression? What if a simple repetitive motion is mistaken for an attempt at physical confrontation? If a cop is yelling at my son and he doesn’t respond because he doesn’t understand, what’s stopping the cop from murdering my boy in cold blood?”[ii]
[i] Tim Waller, “Arrest of Autistic Man Prompts Call for Police Training,” WYFF, January 2, 2015. Online: http://www.wyff4.com/news/Arrest-of-autistic-man-prompts-call-for-police-training/30491078.[ii] David Dennis, Jr., “My Son Is Black. With Autism. And I’m Scared Of What The Police Will Do To Him,” Medium, December 4, 2014. Online: .https://medium.com/@DavidDWrites/my-son-is-black-with-autism-and-im-scared-of-what-the-police-will-do-to-him-1af15a203d57.
Zink, a St. Paul officer of 17 years, is known as the department's "autism cop." He's a father of two sons on the spectrum, which gives him unique insight on how cops should interact with people with autism. Flashing lights, searing sirens, and a harsh demeanor are likely to inflame and confuse those with a hypersensitivity to lights and sound, he tells others in his department. Those who avoid eye contact with cops or seem to ignore their commands might not be doing it because they're trying to be evasive, but because they're confused and afraid.
Zink started the Cops Autism Response Education (CARE) about three years ago in response to the violent arrest of an autistic young man. The man's mother, Linda Huber, said her son had fled the floodlight of a patrolling squad car, which made the cops think that he had something to hide. They chased him and billy clubbed him when he tried to struggle, she said
The fledgling CARE program is rooted in St. Paul's western district, beginning with Zink informally educating his fellow officers. It has yet to fully take form throughout the city, but Cmdr. Paul Iovino says that it's now required training for new recruits coming up through the academy. They're hoping to strengthen it in coming years, as more children are projected to be diagnosed with autism