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.
Jackie Spinner at WP:
I only knew that being different and black in America means that my son is vulnerable if stopped by police. A 2016 report, analyzing incidents from 2013 to 2015, found that nearly half the people killed by police had some sort of disability. A 2019 study of police-involved deaths found that 1 in every 1,000 black men is at risk of being killed by law enforcement.
My son’s behavior can be unpredictable. He doesn’t read social cues, and he doesn’t really understand authority. When he makes a mistake, he often starts shouting. After he calms down, he always apologizes — almost immediately — for “causing a little bit of trouble.”
I took my son to the police station as a kindergartner because I wanted officers to understand more about autism and how he might react if they confronted him. Autistic people may be extra sensitive to light, sound and touch, or have difficulty following commands — especially if they are yelled. So to officers, their behavior can appear suspicious or aggressive. Confrontations between police and people with autism often escalate quickly. Police need better, and mandatory, training about people who are “different,” people like McClain or my son. Some departments use virtual reality programs to simulate interactions with someone who is autistic. A Florida-based organization that certifies theme parks as autism-friendly also provides training for first responders.
A post from 2014:
A number of posts have discussed encounters between police and ASD people. The Ferguson shooting and the Garner incident in New York have many African American parents on edge. At Medium, David Dennis, Jr. writes:
Just this week, one of our therapists sent a behavioral plan for Langston, saying that if he didn’t follow spoken instructions then we should physically guide him to do what we want from him. But his therapists are White. And as incredible and helpful as they’ve been, they don’t live with the reality that we do. Our son needs to know how to follow verbal instructions because if he doesn’t, a cop will find that as justification for ending my boy’s life. While we have to modify our language and communication to better convey our needs to our son and build his social skills, him knowing how follow explicit police instructions is non-negotiable. It’s life and death. I need him to know these things.
I keep thinking about what would happen if a cop is wearing gloves and puts his hands on my son. And my son pulls away because the texture of the gloves bother him. Or if my son just doesn’t like being touched by strangers. Or doesn’t react well when people point or raise their voices at him. Right now, the best way to get Langston to follow instructions is to get at eye level with him and explain very calmly what we need from him. What if that’ll always be the best way to communicate with him and a cop sees my son’s inability to process orders as an act of disobedience. 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?