Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why Autism Training for Law Enforcement Doesn't Work

Add A black T-shirt with white lettering on the front that reads:
[This Ain’t / Yo Mama’s / Civil Rights / Movement].
The sleeves and bottom edge of fabric have been cut off.
The back of the shirt has white lettering that reads:
[Hands Up United]. Collection of the Smithsonian
 National Museum of African American History
 and Culture, Gift of Rahiel Tesfamariam
In the aftermath of events in Ferguson, many Black autism moms are giving voice to their fears for their sons. NPR published an article about the Autism Society of Los Angeles teaming with the Los Angeles police department sponsoring a training seminar organized by autism mother and special education teacher Emily Iland for autistics, to teach them about dealing with Law enforcement and to familiarize law enforcement officers with autism and also aired it on a broadcast which you can reach here.    

Now I need to explain that the Denver police officer who shot 15-year-old Black autistic teen Paul Childs III,  had not only received autism training but knew Paul personally and had returned him home just a few days before when Paul had experienced a severe seizure and wandered off, disoriented. Paul trusted the police officer who shot him to death in front of his mother.

Stephon Watts was shot by a Calumet City police officer who had also received autism training. The police officer had arrived at the scene with his partner and ample backup knew Stephon and was fully aware that Stephon was not a threat. The officer who shot Stephon Watts, his partner and other officers on the scene also had tasers. No one bothered to use them. So much for autism training. I learned this painful lesson firsthand when despite my efforts in first responder training in Maryland, Robert "Ethan" Saylor, a young man with Down Syndrome was killed by off duty policemen refusing to listen when told he had a behavioral protocol in place and his mother was on the way. Only after this death did people take this issue seriously. 

Reginald "Neli" Latson was trained in how to manage a police encounter. His behavior was entirely correct. Unfortunately, no one taught Neli how to handle an individual policeman who was off duty and refused to believe Neli was not a threat. In 2013 Neli threatened self-harm because of what was happening to him at the group home where he was to serve out a 20-year sentence and police were called. He is now facing a return to a hellish prison existence, and he doesn't know what he did wrong in the first place. Another awful wrongful call, another disastrous encounter with police, and Neli's life, which was already ruined, is doomed. Out of the media's view, Neli will be returned to an unjustly harsh prison sentence for being autistic and Black. 

No police officers involved in the two deadly shootings lost their jobs. The officer who shot Paul Childs was promoted. 

Unless this type of encounter has happened to you, you will not be able to understand what occurs. Dave Chappelle used such encounters and compared them to police encounters he witnessed between white friends and police in his stand up routines for a reason. Every one of us, nearly all people of color are at risk for this. But we don't have the additional challenge of possibly not being able to speak or behave in a "normal" manner at that moment when speech is being demanded by officers who may or may not have the best intentions towards us.  The Washington Post had a recent blog post that directly asked the question " Why do police see a person's disability as a provocation?"  Training doesn't cover attitudinal injustices. 

So why were Paul Childs and Stephon Watts shot by police who were trained to understand and deal with them knew them personally and had helped them in the past? Why did Neli Latson's "training" fail? Why do I think the Los Angeles approach won't work? First, police in whatever they perceive to be a crisis situation will always fall back on their basic training. So where autism training would require they calm and de-escalate the situation, police will not think in a counterintuitive fashion and they will escalate automatically based upon cues they are trained to react to with aggression in the academy. If they perceive rightly or wrongly that their target is holding anything they will treat the disabled person like a suspect and anyone near them like a hostage. In short, autism training is counterintuitive to police training.

The example given by NPR of the police training seminar for autistic students is typical of parent-driven training. It tries to train autistic consumers on parental and police terms while excluding them from decision-making agency in the creation of the training protocols and curriculum. This demands the autistic person, who may be overwhelmed and in a traumatized state, "behave appropriately" and recognize law enforcement is not a threat. Another issue here is that many autism-related 911 calls are sometimes misplaced or being made for the wrong reasons. These are medical or mental health crisis calls rather than calls for police backup. By misplaced, I mean the intent of the calls is not to help with crisis intervention, but to establish a record needed for other purposes.

Families should no longer be told by anyone that fast-tracking their grown male children into group homes can only happen if there is documented proof that the individual is a danger to himself or others because what follows is parents using 911 calls to establish a paper trail to justify sending their young men off to a group home. These actions often end in tragedy.

You can't train away racism or ableism. Understand that. What we need to look for are paths to reduce creating situations where these encounters take place meaning exploring solutions like a crisis team response group of medical, mental health, and autism professionals which would only include law enforcement (armed with a taser NOT a gun) if abuse of the disabled person or the threat of harm is truly imminent. All strategies need to be inclusive of autistic disability rights activists because they are both directly impacted by whatever training strategies, policies, or actions happen in their name, and they know what training and delivery methods will work best for their peers. 

I ceased pursuing a route of training law enforcement after the death of Robert Ethan Saylor, which happened a year after Maryland implemented the regulatory training solution as an alternative to the bill I asked to be introduced and tried to pass. It was a bitter pill.  I sat in a room full of stakeholders unable to fight back tears the year before, saying that the next time we all met it would be in the aftermath of a death because we had the chance to avert such a disaster in our state and we didn't fight for it enough. I don't know why it takes young people dying to drive legislative change on issues like this. But I realize now that such changes wouldn't have mattered and I was going in the wrong direction with this. We need to understand the hate against the black body, hate against disability, and base solutions that save lives on how to overcome these things. 

My son's life and the lives of too many others depend on us finding a better solution to this issue. Such a solution can only be arrived at by including his neurodivergent peers as stakeholders beyond parading them in training that does not reflect real-life fear in confrontations with law enforcement. Some policeman talking down to a room full of nearly grown neurodivergent men telling them "never touch a policeman's gun" when most autistic men who have been shot dead are shot from a distance not nearly close enough to see a policeman's gun, much less reach for it, shows the canyon divide that exists here. It is time we stop doing things about autistics without them. Stop doing things at them. We can't continue to bury our own sons. 



  1. http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20140709/news/140708750/

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Allison is the autistic woman in this article you?

  2. Thank you for writing this. I have seen so much victim-blaming when it comes to police brutality towards autistics, and it all needs to stop. I agree, training programs for autistics can be helpful if and only if autistic adults are involved in the making.

    Emily Iland has been involved in one of those victim-blaming articles, and apparently her son is enrolled in one of those programs. I never had much respect for the Iland family, they seldom give Tom Iland a voice when it comes to his own disability, and he is 30 years old! What is even more egregious is that his NT sister Lisa made an entire career out of him, and acts as though she knows everything best for all of us.

  3. No references? How does anymore know any of this is real?

    1. 1. Links highlight in red and are embedded in the article.
      2. This is an opinion piece, as most blogs are, this is not an academic paper
      3. Google is a great resource. If the linked articles mentioned in the blog post do not meet your needs for references try searching by the names mentioned in the blog post.
      4. Everyone should question everything written and research it. I expect nothing less. So your statement is a bit odd."How does anymore know any of this is real?" meaning what? Truthful? Again searching for the incidents mentioned and clicking on the links with validate the post.

  4. Thank you for this very important article. I've been saying this since the late 80's!

  5. Since my BE SAFE program is mentioned, I would like to clarify a few things. BE SAFE the Movie was made by and for individuals on the spectrum, along with me. They vetted the entire script and each scene, participated as actors, and did production. My goal is to prevent tragedies by creating educational tools. And as to Tom's voice, maybe you have not kept up with www.ThomasIland.com

  6. I am just discovering your blog and appreciate your range of topics and clarity of mind and purpose. I am a teacher with many students with ASD. They are verbal and may also be dealing with mental health issues. I am concerned about their safety in the community and was thinking that greater training and awareness among law enforcement personnel would he helpful. However, this is clearly not as great a tool as it might be. I am wondering what your bill in the MD legislature contained that was different than what was passed? Who was your training intended for? What types of information and practice did you think were valuable that were not included?

    I will continue to read - thanks for all the links and good information.

    1. Thanks for your input. Lydia Brown, at http://www.autistichoya.com/ has a comprehensive police training bill specific to autistic people that details training supportive of autistic stakeholders for not just law enforcement but criminal justice. I would reach out to them for their detailed input specific to autistic community members. A foundational issue for me is that much of the catastrophic nature of police encounters with autistic, disabled, nonspeaking, people with psychiatric disability, or people who have combined or multiple disabilities is that police are stepping into situations where they should not be involved in the first place. Mental health crisis teams for psychiatric crises and suicide prevention, as well as peer respite centers, community based supports and networks, have already been successful in areas where they have been implemented. Police should not be involved in the profiling or behavioral management of school aged autistic students when humane behavioral assessment by educational professionals and thoroughly trained staff and supports are needed instead.