The Talk…


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.

5 Comments to

“The Talk…”

  1. April 6th, 2012 at 1:10 pm      Reply Anthony Cody Says:

    I think you are doing an important thing with your son, and with others. But I have one issue with your advice.

    You write: “if you are being questioned, wait till I get down to the station before answering.”

    Being at the station offers zero protection, and one should be careful about answering police questions if you think they may be at all incriminating. Better advice would be to avoid answering questions until a lawyer, or at least a parent, is present. There are a great many young people — especially young African Americans and Latinos, serving life sentences, who talked with the police and provided information that led to their conviction. And you can be tried as an adult as young as fourteen for some crimes.

    It is best to explicitly ask for a lawyer, because this is a request that must be honored by the police. Young people should understand they have a Constitutional right to remain silent. They do NOT need to answer questions at all — not on the street, not in the station, nowhere.

    • April 6th, 2012 at 1:25 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      I meant, don’t talk until I (the parent) get there. It was a poor wording on my part should have read, ask to have your parent there. Keep in mind too, that for Autistic kids, they are literal, etc. so wording is probably critical, and it will be similar to explaining it in English to an EL who is not yet fluent in English.

  2. April 6th, 2012 at 1:45 pm      Reply Anthony Cody Says:

    My wife, a criminal appeals lawyer, wants to share this:

    When police officers are investigating a crime, and take you to the station, the chances are they have evidence against you, and are looking to solidify it, or are trying to get you to incriminate someone else.

    If the police read you the Miranda warning, that is a clear sign they are looking for incriminating evidence.

    She has never seen a case where someone helped himself by talking to the police in the absence of a lawyer. When in doubt, do not talk.

    If you say “I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to my lawyer,” then they are supposed to stop questioning you. And anything that you say after that cannot be used against you.

    This is NOT true if you ask for a parent. Magic words: “I want to talk to a lawyer.”

  3. April 16th, 2012 at 4:43 am      Reply Graham Wegner Says:

    Alice, my eldest has ASD so your post strikes a chord, and raises a number of issues that I hadn’t even thought of before so thank you. Australian law is somewhat different to American but the premise of having a strategy when speaking to the police is a sound one. Staying calm enough to execute that strategy would be the challenging part for our child.

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