I have a two-fer family. In addition to my son being bi-racial (African-American and white), he is on spectrum for Autism. After the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, I’ve been thinking about how to discuss this with my son. Many African-American parents have blogged about having “the talk” with their children about how to deal with the police and racism in general. There have been plenty of great posts about this that others have written, so I will not cover that ground. This post will discuss this from an Autism perspective, since this is a “risk” factors for encounters with law enforcement or vigilantes with more fire-power than sense. Although folks with Autism are at greater risk for encounters with police, it’s often because they are likely victims but communication difficulties often prevent them from getting help or get them in trouble when they ask for it. This is something that I first heard about in this story from NPR, and it makes sense. Folks with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) have behaviors that can appear as defiant, but are not intended that way.
To give some background, my son is pretty verbal, and is not intellectually impaired (I don’t like cognitive impairment because his communication disorders are a cognitive impairment — but his IQ is fine). In addition, he can make eye-contact (something that police often use as a sign of verity/non-evasiveness), and he is generally compliant with authority. In his case, I feel he still needs some strategies because of the risk of him being a victim, and/or being misunderstood.
One part of the talk that black folks have with their children is to convey not only the right level of compliance (follow the police officer’s directions), but also what rights they have (if you are being questioned, wait till I get down to the station before answering). Giving them boundaries and telling them their rights is really important for an ASD kid because they are often victims of sexual assault, etc. It needs to be clear to them that some rube off the street cannot detain them, or take them somewhere. This is a risk for all kids, but since ASD kids having a harder time discerning the intention of others, they need really firm boundaries about this.
Next, the gun trumps all. If someone pulls a gun, follow their directions. This may sound obvious, but ASD kids are often consequence and risk impaired in their thinking. This is not as significant a problem in my son’s cognition, but I’m still going to repeat it.
Finally, all kids need to have the sense that they have rights, and that they need to assert them appropriately so they can be heard. An ASD person under pressure may yell or scream, etc. Conveying to the them the importance of expressing themselves clearly so they can be heard is critical. One of the most powerful things kids who are atypical can do is share that they are having difficulty because of their disorder. The police or others won’t know why you are having a problem explaining something without some context. Telling my child, if you’re stopped by cops tell them you’re Autistic and sometimes that makes it hard for you to communicate, may help smooth things out. Folks in California who receive Regional Center Services get Medic Alert bracelets, etc. but my son is verbal enough to share this himself.
My son is both African-American and Autistic, and a lot of how he is treated will be determined by how he is perceived and what filter others bring to the encounter.