Written by Tosin Ade
Heartwarming. Kind. Innocent. Compassionate. These are words families, friends, and colleagues used when describing the amazing soul that was Elijah McClain. Elijah’s life mattered. Elijah was killed as a result of police brutality. Right before he was unjustly killed, Elijah could be heard emphasizing that he was an introvert and needed the police officers to respect his space and boundaries. In the video, watched by millions around the world, Elijah rendered his last words in the form of a heart-tugging emotional appeal. “I am an introvert, please respect the boundaries that I am speaking,” Elijah pleaded.
It is almost two years since the passing of Elijah, but the impact of his death still lingers and stings. His death confirms the need for police officers to be trained when dealing with individuals like Elijah. History repeated itself on March 31, 2021, when an autistic individual, Isaias Cervantes was shot by the police in Los Angeles.
The McClain family has never confirmed or refuted Elijah’s diagnosis of autism. Nevertheless, many parents of autistic children could see glaring similarities between Elijah’s mannerisms and their children's. Parenting is hard, now throw in the mix of raising a special needs child. The stress is quadrupled. These parents live in constant fear of what will happen when they finally send their autistic child into the world. The fear is real, constant, and persistent. Will they receive acceptance and empathy from the world?
Armed with tools and resources, parents of autistic children instill the skills needed to navigate the world. Unfortunately, no amount of preparation will help if the people tasked with the responsibility of protecting them have no inclination as to the very essence of an autistic individual. According to The Autism Society of America, 1 in 5 young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will interact with a police officer before the age of 21. Additionally, individuals with disabilities, including autistic individuals, are five times more likely to be incarcerated than people without disabilities.
As a society, we are predisposed to view disability as a physical impediment. Yet, not all disabilities are visible. Autism is an invisible disability. A vast majority of the autistic population looks like neurotypical individuals. Autistic individuals exhibit mannerisms that could be perceived by law enforcement as belligerent behaviors.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), defines autism as a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. According to CDC, an estimated 5.4 million adults and 1 in 54 children have been diagnosed with ASD. Given the population of autistic Americans, autism awareness and acceptance are critical within law enforcement. Police and other law enforcement agencies should be trained comprehensively and holistically on the nuances of autistic individuals.
The autism spectrum ranges from being high functioning to low functioning. Generally, Autistic individuals struggle with communication skills, social skills, eye contact, expressing feelings, touch, and changes in routine. We are raised to maintain eye contact when speaking to show respect. This can be excruciating for an autistic person. A police officer can view this inability to maintain eye contact as rude or suspicious behavior. Another example is the need to repeat words (echolalia). To a neurotypical person who is not aware of symptoms of autism, it can be viewed as a behavior done with the intent to annoy. Engaging in repetitive behavior is one of the ways autistic individuals self-soothe. Since officers are not trained to recognize these behaviors, it puts autistic individuals at risk.
No one expects police officers to know everything about autism. Notwithstanding, knowing what behaviors to look out for and how to respond will reduce the number of unjust deaths. These changes can only be made through nationwide training and education on autism within police departments. In providing training, it is recommended that autistic individuals, families, caregivers, and experts be involved. Likewise, consistency is key. Multiple follow-up training at different intervals during the year (quarterly or semi-annually) should be considered. The training must never be one and done. Local law enforcement agencies should have community events that foster positive interaction within the autistic community.
As we celebrate Autism Awareness Month, let us also focus on the need for acceptance of autistic individuals. Through awareness and acceptance, let us give parents of autistic individuals faith and assurance in the goodwill of society. A faith that when their child steps out of the confines of their home, they will be accepted. An assurance that those sworn to protect and serve will show empathy coupled with acceptance.
Tosin Ade is a 10-year special education teacher in Los Angeles County. She is the founder of Childhood Uninterrupted, a platform dedicated to celebrating and embracing special needs parents.