Black & Autistic + The Police


*If you need some context to why this is such an important topic to discuss, please see any of the links below:

According to a 2017 study (Drexel, Autism Institute), about 1 in 5 Autistic teens will be stopped and questioned by a police officer before they are 21 years old.

The Matthew Rushin story is one of horrible injustice and tragedy, and reveals a concerning urgency to  prepare brown and black Autistic children, teens, and adults, for police interaction. Sadly, this isn't as simple as holding up the smiling photo of the community helper and saying "Point to the police officer". No, that really isn't going to cut it.

Just like teaching any other skill, a great starting place would be to set a terminal goal. Is the goal for the individual to remain calm if stopped by the police? To answer questions respectfully? To be able to explain their diagnosis, and any behaviors that an officer might deem "suspicious"? Is the goal to avoid engaging in behaviors that may attract police attention (although realistically, how pragmatic is this?)? What would the terminal goal look like, and then once that goal has been identified-- work backwards.

It is also important to teach at the ability level of the individual, understanding that language, cognitive, or social impairments may mean visual supports are helpful, practice/role play is helpful, and other evidence based strategies such as video modeling may be needed. For some individuals who require daily supervision and support, perhaps it is unlikely they will encounter a police offer without an adult/teacher/parent present. In that case, maybe staying calm, keeping hands visible, and not walking off would be appropriate behaviors to increase. 

For other individuals who do not require daily supervision, live alone, and have independence, police interaction training may need to be much more in-depth and sophisticated as a known adult/caregiver likely won't be present. In this instance, self-advocacy and the ability to stay still and calm while being questioned would be important.

What I see of the most importance, however, is not skipping this conversation. Will it be pleasant? No. Police brutality is not a pleasant thing to talk about. Will it be easy? No. Most non-Autistic people don't understand police brutality, and I'd imagine that it's no different for Autistics. Will it make police seem fearful or scary? Possibly. But we also teach individuals street safety, kitchen safety, water/pool safety, etc. I see this as being a similar skill. Police are a part of our society, and it is unrealistic to expect certain populations within our society to have a magical 'free pass' from potential unpleasant police interaction.

If your child or client was outside unsupervised and an officer walked up and said "Tell me your name", what would happen? What about if they got pulled over by a police officer while driving? Or needed to approach a police officer to request help, or ask for directions?

When I think about this issue, I think about particular black and brown clients I've worked with as an ABA provider:

-A teen who tends to invade personal space and talk very closely to people's faces. 

-Another teen who shouts and hops up and down when he is confused or agitated.

-A child (She looks like a teen, but she's not. She's only 9) who covers her ears when agitated and stops talking.

-Multiple children who have full body repetitive movements where they may excitedly pace, run back and forth, or flail their arms out. 

If I try to imagine any of them in a scenario with a police officer, I am unclear how their mannerisms would be interpreted ..... as aggression? disrespect? Does that officer know what Autism is? Might the officer incorrectly assume drug or alcohol use, instead of "Developmental Disability"? I really don't know. 

And it is exactly because we don't know how the police interaction might be misconstrued, that we need to prepare our clients, students, and loved ones/children as best we can.

Ultimately, injustice is hard to predict. But as parents, educators, ABA providers, etc., while we cannot predict future negative police interaction, we can do what we can to prepare for that possibility. At least start with a conversation, and helping your child/client distinguish between typical police behavior and when they are being violated, harmed, or are in danger. 

**Resources (please share!) **

'Correlates of Police Involvement among Adolescents and Adults with ASD'

'An Exploration of Law Enforcement Training Needs with ASD'

'Using Virtual Reality to Train Police Interaction

"Meet the Police" A National Autism Association Safety Initiative 

'Autism, Law Enforcement, & First Responder Training

'Behavioral Issues Boost Risk of Police Run-Ins'

Autism in Black organization

The Color of Autism Foundation

Mapping Police Violence website

Black Autistic Lives Matter

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