So here’s a subject I had never really thought about in great detail. I was on twitter and came across an issue tweeted by Sharon daVanport (blog-talk radio, twitter, facebook) a director of the Autism Women’s Network (AWN). Someone in the forum had been harassed by the police for no reason. Their story goes that they had been eating in Subway and when this person went out to their car two police officers called the person by name and surrounded the writer. The person had no idea who they were even though they evidently knew the poster. They refused to let the poster leave until the poster answered how she was. They then followed her in their cruiser for several blocks. The poster was scared, confused and frightened. She asked for help. What should she have done? Did she do anything to warrant the police officers harassment? I feel frustrated because I had no way to help this person. I have no idea what if any advice really exists to give her. The police obviously were harassing this young person. They obviously thought it was funny knowingly upsetting her. Then why did they do it? Well, I think we all know the reason for that; some policemen are not peace officers but bullies with a badge. But the reality is, how often will our children face a situation like this and how do we teach them to handle it?
I know that I live in a very small town and that the police chief knows my husband from the Community Emergency Response Team. Hubby is the chairperson of the all volunteer group and was just responsible for setting up the shelter in our town during the snowicane. I know that there are only 20 police officers in our town all together and that they tend to be respectful and good people. I have seen them in town when the middle school gets out, directing traffic around the miscreant adolescents, usually yelling at the kids to get out of the way of the cars, but for the most part, not interfering in youthful fun. I have dealt with them myself when I was a lecturer for the Juvenile Law Center, when I lectured middle schoolers about their rights and obligations under law in society. They all seemed nice and genuine about their desire to help the kids. Only once did I detect a swagger, where the officer barreled his way into class, with a pistol on his hip and two deputies at his side. Truthfully the kids ate it up.
Personally, I have never had to deal with an abusive, aggressive or rude police officer in my life. Well, once in Boston as a college student when hubby made a wrong turn in the car. We were lost and very confused. But I think the Yankees had just clobbered the Red Socks once again and the Bostonians take their baseball just a little too seriously for my taste. But for the most part whenever I have shown respect to a police officer no matter where I was, the respect was returned. Funny though, how such incidents stay with you. This happened decades ago and I can still see that police officer’s face, see his march fom the car and I feel the surprise at his hostility. I was taken aback and truthfully a little scared at that moment. So I totally sympathize with the poster on AWN.
However, I have to say, in the back of my mind I always think about the boys in relationship to police officers or some form of authority figure. I know they do not look people in the eye and they do not always answer right away. Those trained to catch liars are not trained to understand autism. I am afraid that the boys’ hesitancy and their indirectness may be misconstrued. I know it has to be an issue because the author Jodi Picoult just wrote a book with an aspie protagonist who gets in trouble with the police for those reasons.(No I have not read the book, but if I do I will let everyone know what I think).
I try to teach them to be respectful of police officers. I try to teach them to make eye contact and answer when spoke to. I teach them that police officers are their friends and there to help you. I teach them that behavior is everything and that people judge you by what you do and say. I teach them that as they grow into young men, meltdowns in public will bring the police and that people will not look kindly upon any societal infraction. I teach them that they cannot yell at strangers. I teach them that they should not grouse under their breath or act strange in any way. (It is hard to tell them how to behave and to make sure that they listen and practice. So much they still cannot control when they get overwhelmed. They are both terribly rude when they are at their most anxious and I would think if they are stopped by the police their anxiety would go through the roof. Rudeness is not going to be understood by a police officer, and especially not appreciated.)
I teach them to obey the law. I teach them that just because they have aspergers does not mean they will not be punished if they break the law. I make sure on their medical alert necklace has their diagnosis of aspergers on it and that there are emergency numbers with a list of medications as well. It is for medical purposes but it is also an instrument of security, that if they ever do get stopped they can show it to the police officer who just might read what it says.
I know that there are programs out there that train police officers to become aware of autism and how to deal with it. I know that there are programs where you can register your child and their disability with the police. But in a big city how much training would the officer actually get? How much time would they have to understand what is going on? Police officers are faced with life and death decisions that at times need to be made in a split second. Are they going to endanger themselves because they are not sure if the person having a meltdown is dangerous or is that person autistic?
I know this doesn’t answer the question of the young autistic person who was hassled by the police just because she wanted to eat lunch. I know that this post doesn’t answer any questions, it just raises them. I guess I have no answers myself, except to teach my boys how to behave and that they must always always be respectful to a police officer. I teach them that they must always obey the law and expect punishment if they don’t.
Luckily neither one thinks law is a joke. When collegman was 5 he took something out of a store by hiding it in his coat pocket. After we walked way he showed me what he had. I marched him right back to the store and had the store manager talk to him. Now that was a nice man and he told him that what he did was stealing and that it was a crime. That if he took from a store he could go to jail. Now I think it effected both boys, because to this day, neither one will even drink a soda in the supermarket until I pay for it, even if I tell them to just hold on to the bottle and show it to the checkout person and tell them that you drank the drink. No, no they will not drink it or eat anything from the cart, even a cookie from a bag full of cookies. Actually I let it be. It’s a good lesson. Let them be scrupulously honest. It’s ok. We live our lives that way too. In fact, as we leave a store to this day, collegeman still asks me if I have paid for everything. (I guess politics is not in their future)
But still I worry about the authority figure who thinks it’s funny to harass someone who is defenseless or without the ability to fight back in anyway. What do I tell my children, if the people who are supposed to protect them turn into the bullies they’ve had to deal with all their lives? There are post incident actions, sure. You can file a complaint and bring a lawsuit. But what do you tell them to do in the middle of the incident other than to be good and try to be respectful? I wish I had an answer for them and I wish I had an answer for that poster in the AWN website. But I don’t and that scares and saddens me.
Until next time,