Saturday, April 25, 2009

Things I don't want to read about at breakfast

Well, one thing, actually. Headlines that nauseate me: "Family claims Chicago police officer beat autistic teenager." The story below the headline doesn't settle my stomach. Moderately autistic 16 year old was standing on the street, approached by police, then he walked away. Police (allegedly) chased him into a restaurant and bash him on the head while he yelled, "I'm a special boy!"

There may be all sorts of extenuating circumstances with which this story will be re-told in such a way that the police action seems--or is--excusable. As the parent of an autistic young man, whatever extenuating circumstances may exist do not make me feel a whit better.

One of the earliest things we taught Jonathan (our 21 year old son who is fairly high functioning) was if approached by police, he needed to immediately identify himself as autistic. People with autism don't like to make eye contact. They get nervous in new situations. Their behavior is often, um, odd. These are not social skill deficits that police willingly ignore, as they mimic what a person under suspicion might do.

Hence the need to educate both people with autism to identify themselves as such and to educate police about what autism might look like. The irony here is that the Chicago Police Department has been doing exactly this week, according to the Trib article. With the Easter Seals, they held an Autism Safety Awareness night , complete with 6 page training memo for all officers and index cards with tips on working with autistic people.

So the young man in question did what he was supposed to do: identified himself as special. The cops have been doing what they are supposed to do: educate the force about a community they serve. And still an autistic person receives a blow to the head needing 7 staples to close.

The family is considering a civil suit and wants the officers involved fired. I understand. I'd imagine that if the officers had pursued this young man, waited that split second necessary to discover what in the heck he meant by saying he was a "special boy", and not whacked him on the head, everyone would be happier right now.

I also understand that there isn't always a split second available. That decisions are sometimes made in a quarter second. And that those decisions can mean life or death for the officers involved. Officers make judgments and make mistakes; they are human.

Officers are enjoined to "Serve and Protect", though. That certainly entails a special obligation to protect those who are most in need of it--those with disabilities. Perhaps a split second of listening to this young man's family--who surrounded both him and the police while the officers were smacking him--yelling that he was a "special boy" with "special needs" might have been enough to change the scenario completely.

I don't want dead officers. I don't want autistic teenagers to have their heads bashed by police. I want to eat my breakfast in peace. Alas, I don't always get what I want.



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