In light of the recent events surrounding the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri I again have to face one of my worst nightmares. Although my son Elijah is biracial, he appears to be a young black man who could at any time find himself the target of police violence. I am a former Magistrate so I more than understand that the job of a police officer is often thankless and that fine, upstanding officers put their lives on the line every day. Still, I know there is a large element of black men whose only crime is being black. For those who are profiled, harassed and arrested for no good reason I lament.
I am fearful for my son. I won’t always be there to protect him. Elijah is moderately autistic and is clueless about the world around him. That is the only thing that protects him – the fact that he does not think in the abstract so he doesn’t know that he is a young black man. The same thing unfortunately also endangers him considering that he does not know he is a young black man who could be targeted. So having a young black man in America gives me reason to fear, but add moderate autism to equation and my fear is ten-fold. There is story after story justifying my fear.
Elijah can be trained on how to react to a police officer’s order, but no amount of training would help him if 5 officers are all yelling at him to get on the ground or to hold up his hands. Elijah would be perplexed and stare into the mouth of one officer and wonder what in the world is going on. He would not react as he is delayed and ponders a few minutes before he does or says anything. So as the mother of a young black man who is also autistic, my fear is tenfold. I can’t imagine any situation where Elijah may face a police gun as he will always need supervision for his own safety. He cannot defend himself in society and is unaware of danger and how evil some people can be. But many things can be put in place that would allow my son to be in the presence of police. Someone could see him somewhere and report a suspicious person, or he could get away from an aide and simply elope away. There are many scenarios that one could possibly imagine that may all have the same terrible ending.
I am not alone in my fear for a special needs child. Many parents of children and adults with special needs share my fear and with good reason regardless of their race. We dream the same nightmare and eventually have to resign ourselves that our children will be ok, hoping that the case we hear on the news or read about online is not our own child. I can’t function with a constant mindset of constant worry so I pray that God protects my son.
I don’t know what police departments across the country are doing to positively address racial profiling practices that plague our communities. But I hope efforts between the police and community groups can start a dialogue and curtail the practice. I do know however, some profiling is necessary to keep us safe.
With all the possible scenarios that could endanger my son with the police I realize that all police interaction need not be bad or negative. In fact, it’s mostly positive. This past Wednesday, I attended a seminar and interactive screening of Be Safe The Movie sponsored by The Autism Society of Los Angeles, Autism Unites, Mychal’s Place (from where my son receive services) The Culver City Police Department and the writer/producer of the film, Emily Iland. The seminar was quite informative. The movie shows autistic teens and adults how to interact with the police with several scenarios. Members of the CCPD including Chief Scott Bixby and several distinguished captains and officers were hand to speak to and instruct participating teens and adults. Every police department should be partnering with autism advocacy organizations promoting awareness, education and understanding of those on the Autism Spectrum. Shockingly, I learned that teens and adults with autism are seven times more likely to be involved with law enforcement because of their inability to communicate. Many times autistic individuals exhibit behavior deemed inappropriate which can quickly escalate if they become stressed or agitated. The police are trained how to confront and deescalate the situation and gain control thereby preventing possible tragedy.
I was interviewed by NPR for All Things Considered during their coverage of the event. I simply reiterated that I have feared for Elijah since he was diagnosed with Autism in 2003. I am very thankful for the efforts of some police departments that proactively seek programs and partnerships that promote good communication with special needs children and adults. I applaud positive, instructional or educational interaction with officers and pray that is the only circumstance my son will find himself in the presence of police, ever.