Welcome back to my blog series on autism and police brutality. Last week, I shared with you my take on the Black Lives Matter Movement as an autism therapist. I realize that as an autistic person or a parent of an autistic teen or young adult, you may worry about having the social skills to interact appropriately if you were ever stopped by the police. Today, I want to talk about what that would look like. First, I want to highlight how many people with autism care about the Black Lives Matter Movement, and have their own fears around police brutality.
Neurodiverse Teens and Young Adults with Autism are Very Caring, and They Empathize with the Black Lives Matter Movement
The Black Lives Matter movement has impacted my neurodiverse clients and their parents on multiple levels. The Black Lives Matter Movement highlighted institutionalized discrimination. I am an autism therapist and I work with high-functioning autistic adults and teens. Many of my clients can relate to discrimination because they have also felt it when they disclose their neurodiversity to their employers, friends, or teachers. This heightens the compassion they feel for the victims of police brutality. There is a stereotype that people with autism are cold and unfeeling. This is not the case. In fact, autistic people can empathize so deeply that they become overwhelmed by the suffering they feel or the suffering of others. This has been especially true as we follow the coverage of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Many of my autistic clients are driven by a sense of fairness and justice. So, they are outraged by the inequality Black people face on a daily basis. Autistic people tend to gravitate toward activism because of their sense of righteousness. I know many autistic people stand as allies of the Black Lives Matter Movement. They make great allies because they are fiercely passionate and focused. They can relate to feeling misunderstood and discriminated against.
The Black Lives Matter Movement Has Given Voice to Fears About Police Brutality in the Autism Community
The BLM movement has stoked conversations with my clients around their own deep-seated fears around police brutality and institutionalized discrimination. Most people with autism like rules. So, breaking rules goes against their nature. They appreciate the safety and predictability that rules bring them. If anything, autistic people are very law-abiding. However, a cop could misunderstand their autistic behavior or stress response as non-compliant.
This causes many of my autistic clients to be terrified of being pulled over by the cops. Some high-functioning autistic teens and young adults worry that they will be frozen by fear if this happens. Or, they fear being rendered speechless if confronted by a police officer. Others worry that they will become overwhelmed and belligerent, or fidget due to nervousness. They worry that their fear response will overwhelm their body. This fear may leave them unable to process or follow orders given by a police officer. Many of my autistic clients and their parents fear that the police will see them as a threat. They could be misunderstood as being non-compliant, oppositional, or worse. And this could lead to hostile or even deadly action on the part of the officer.
Many people with autism have sensory sensitivities. So, if they were stopped by a cop, sirens, raised voices or megaphones, and bright flashing lights could possibly overwhelm their sensory system. This could also lead to a variety of behaviors that could be misinterpreted as a threat by police officers. And again, this could have violent or deadly repercussions.
The Inability to Advocate Safely
A few of my clients have a card they keep in their pocket that describes their autism. They carry this so they could give it to a police officer or other first responder, especially if they become nonverbal due to fear or stress. But, these days, some of my clients worry about reaching into their pocket to access the card. This gesture could be misinterpreted as reaching for a gun and may cause an officer to take lethal action. Not being able to advocate or themselves leaves many of my clients feeling very helpless. How are they supposed to advocate for themselves when their every move could be considered threatening?
You Can’t Look at My Clients and Know They Have Autism
I’ve had clients come to me wondering if some of these deadly police actions against Black people were against autistic Black people, such as Elijah McClain? I’ve had clients worry that he was killed because he had autism. If he had autism it could leave him unable to process and effectively respond to the complex and emotionally volatile social interaction. Many of my autistic clients have experienced years of physical and emotional bullying by peers, teachers, and even family. So, being confronted by an aggressive or forceful authority figure can be triggering for them and traumatic. They worry that this was the case in Elijah’s tragic story.
Neurodiverse in a Neurotypical World
I work with autistic clients who are high-functioning. You can’t look at them and know they have autism. This is scary when talking about police brutality. The police force has a general lack of understanding of neurodiversity. So, when interacting with a neurodiverse person, a police officer will likely expect them to behave as a neurotypical would. For instance, a cop may expect a neurodiverse person to make eye contact. The police officer could misinterpret a lack of eye contact as the neurodiverse person trying to hide something or acting defiant. They expect them to understand social cues. For instance, if a police officer were to use gestures or sarcasm, a person on the autism spectrum might not understand the gesture or might. Or, they might do what was literally said to them. In turn, the police officer might misread the autistic person’s behavior as threatening.
Frequency of Police Interactions for Autistics
A 2017 study out of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute found that about 20% of youth with autism had been stopped and questioned by police by the age of 21. And, close to 5% had been arrested. A recent 2019 study out of York University, researchers found that 75% of the adults with autism had at least one police interaction in their life. 53% of the adults reported four or more police interactions. Research is limited on the topic of police interactions in people with autism. But, it does suggest that the odds are good a person with autism will have a police encounter with police at some point in their life.
You may be wondering what you can do as an autistic person if you’re confronted by the police?
Well first things first, think about your social skills training. Take a moment and take a deep calming breath to center yourself. Remember that although you’re scared, you can handle this. First, consider disclosing your autism to the officer. Then, listen to what they’re saying and what they are asking you to do. Do your best to comply with their orders. Hopefully, they will be compassionate and understanding of your autism and the difficulties it may cause in high-stress situations such as this.
Here are some specific steps you can use if stopped by law enforcement:
- Avoid making sudden movements, if possible.
- Use calming strategies you may have learned (example: deep breathing)
- Disclose you have autism and other relevant conditions (example: anxiety, ADHD, or Tourette’s syndrome). Tell the officer what would help you remain calm in the situation. And, give them a contact person for you that the officer can call. If you have stimming behavior, tics, or have difficulty controlling movement when anxious, include this in your information card. You can disclose your condition(s) in one of the following ways:
- Have a memorized script you can verbally share. This may not be a good strategy if you tend to have difficulty speaking when stressed.
- Show the officer a wallet-sized information card about your autism and other relevant conditions. Before reaching for the card, make sure that the officer gives you the ok to reach for your card or have the officer access the card for you.
- Wear a medical alert bracelet that states your condition(s). Then, alert the officer that you have an information card.
- Tell the officer you want to cooperate and try to comply with their orders.
- If you are confused by an order they give you. Reiterate that you want to comply with their order. Then, tell them you are confused and need them to explain it in a different way.
Ways an Autism Parent Can Help Their Child Prepare for Interactions with Law Enforcement:
I think it is important for autistic people and their families to have conversations about concerns regarding police brutality, racism, and discrimination. By having open conversations, your child will be less likely to experience stress about being stopped by the police. They will be able to process their fears and anxiety, rather than letting them build up.
Loved ones can also support autistics by helping them think through how to handle being stopped by an officer. They can even practice what this would look like and role-play possible scenarios. For parents, just giving your child a safe space to explore their thoughts about these relevant and anxiety-provoking topics can be really helpful.
Lastly, you are your child’s advocate. So, I encourage you to consider advocating for better mental health and sensitivity training for members of law enforcement in your area. I think sensitivity training on neurodiversity and autism is crucial for officers. Ultimately, a police officer’s job is to protect, but how can you protect someone if you misinterpret their behavior as threatening?
Autism Group Therapy a Great Place to Discuss Concerns and Learn Social Skills
If you are looking to learn social skills and live in California, I encourage you to consider joining one of my social skills groups for high-functioning autistic teens or young adults. I offer groups for gifted autistic teens and their caregivers, autistic women, neurodiverse working professionals, autistic college students, and young adults with ASD.
My Approach to Teaching Life and Social Skills to Autistic Women
My autism group therapy curriculum takes a three-pronged approach to teach these skills. First, we learn skills to cope with anxiety and stress. Then, we discuss social skills and communication skills such as interpreting body language, initiating conversation, and listening. Finally, we talk about ways you can self-advocate and stand up for yourself to ensure success. All of these skills can be used in these scary situations. They are also very useful at work, at school, and in really any type of situation.
I care deeply about all my group members, so when there’s an issue bothering you, I want to know about it. That’s how I knew just how affected my group members were by the Black Lives Matter Movement and their fear of law enforcement. If you give me permission, we will discuss your issues in the group, so the other members can also provide their input and support, and together we can grow and learn. At Open Doors Therapy you will find your tribe and your support network.
I offer a group to support autism parents too
And, if you are an autism parent in California, there’s a group for you too. I offer a free online autism parent support group for autism parents and caregivers. Here you will meet others who have autistic children and are experiencing the same anxiety and struggles you are. You can discuss your concerns in a safe environment. Then, you will learn new ways to communicate with your autistic teen or young adult and help them thrive.
Begin Autism Therapy in California
At Open Doors Therapy you will find a community of peers and a therapist who understands high-functioning neurodiversity. So, if you’re looking for compassionate autism therapy, I invite you to consider my practice. Regardless of the color of your skin, I will support you and provide you with a safe space to discuss whatever issues you’re having and help you learn new tools to cope with these challenges.
To begin autism therapy in California, follow these steps:
- Make an appointment for a free 30-minute phone consultation. During your call, we will discuss the issues you’re having and how I can help.
- Like Open Doors Therapy on Facebook. On my page, I post useful information that will allow you to stay up-to-date on Open Doors Therapy and our autism services.
- Sign up to receive my autism newsletter.
Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
As an autism therapist, I serve high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families at my counseling clinic in Palo Alto, CA. Right now, I am offering all my autism therapy services online. We provide a variety of autism counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. I also offer online social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. For more information, please reach out to my Palo Alto, CA autism counseling office.