Written by Jennifer "Jay" Palumbo, CEO of Wonder Woman Writer & Mom to two boys, one with autism.
“Did they forget that they are only supposed to shoot bad guys?” My five-year-old son, Matthew, asks about the police.
I had been researching various studies and stories around black autistic men being killed. Before the pandemic, Matthew would not have been home to witness these phone calls and articles I was reading. Now, due to the pandemic, he’s home 24/7 and getting more of a ‘home-schooling’ than I imagined.
My older son, Michael, is autistic. He is eight years old, and long before the quarantine, and George Floyd, I would regularly attend a monthly breakfast that his school would offer where other parents of autistic children would get together. One morning, we were discussing how many in public do not always recognize or understand the signs of autism. One parent casually mentioned that the police often see their behavior as either obstinate or mistake it as being on drugs. The woman next to me shared earlier that her son tends to run off (something that those on the spectrum are known to do). She said, “I’m worried the police will kill my child.” She and her son are African American.
While the conversation continued, I couldn’t get this comment out of my mind. My first thought was, “Oh my god. She’s right.”
My next thought was, “How come I never even thought of that?”
That’s when I realized. It’s because my son and I are white.
The Reality of Being Black and Autistic
According to a study, those with autism are seven times more likely to encounter police than “neurotypical” individuals. Depending on the severity of their disorder, those on the spectrum can react out of the ordinary and have trouble following commands. The reality is, though, that as a white woman, I didn’t even think of them killing Michael. That alone is a statement unto itself.
In 2020, the CDC reported that 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism, and can affect all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Young Black males are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, and those with autism are seven times more likely to encounter police than “neurotypical” individuals. Depending on the severity of their condition, people on the autism spectrum can react inappropriately to officers and have trouble following commands.
As I collected this information, I reached out to Camille Proctor, Executive Director and Founder of The Color of Autism. In my email to her, I asked if she had any actionable advice on what we can do to protect black autistic lives. She wrote back:
“Step 1: The police need to stop killing black people.
Step 2: We need to offer culturally competent police training.”
Camille also invited me to an upcoming virtual Town Hall to learn more.
Community Emergency Services and Support Act (CESSA)
As I dialed in, the first thing I heard was someone say, “I just want his life and our lives to matter.” It was Renee Watts.
She spoke about her brother, Stephon (pronounced steh-FON), who was diagnosed with Asperger’s (a form of autism) around seven years old. He had behavioral issues but was coping with them. Stephon enjoyed going to church, learned how to code, and was a follower of Christ.
On February 12th, 2012, Stephon Watts, who was fifteen years old, was shot and killed in front of his father in his own home by the Calumet City police in Illinois. As a Black teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, Stephon fell at this intersection of these
At present, if someone calls 911 regarding someone they know has autism or a mental health issue, the police are sent. That was the case with Stephon. More and more, across the United States, there is a push to have a trained mental health professional respond instead. They not only would have a better understanding of the situation, but the risk of unnecessary violence would decrease. This is what the Community Emergency Services and Support Act (CESSA), introduced into the General Assembly, aims to accomplish. CESSA would ensure a mental health professional answer any emergency calls along with a police officer when there is someone who has a behavioral issue.
“CESSA act is a step in the right direction of helping our community work to work as a community,” Ms. Watts explained. “We have asked our police officers to become mental health professionals. The CESSA development was created by an Access Living and their group of young adults living with disabilities called Advance Your Leadership Power. The main element of the plan is to make mental and behavioral health professionals available as an alternative to the police.”
A Problem That Needs You
While CESSA would be a tremendous help, what about the situations where it isn’t known ahead of time that someone is autistic?
“Although a lot of focus has been on this matter for the past few months, this is a reality Black people have had to live with all of our lives,” Maria Davis-Pierre, LMHC said. She is the CEO and Founder of Autism in Black Inc. "Autism is an invisible diagnosis, so when having interactions with police, the first thing they will notice about my daughter is her skin tone, meaning she’s a black person. With that, we know comes implicit and explicit biases. They are not going to know unless they have a long interaction with her, or she tells them that she is autistic. And even then, those biases may outweigh her diagnosis. I constantly fear for her life when she gets older.”
Dennis Debbaudt is a former private investigator who, for 25 years, has been training criminal justice professionals, police, and emergency responders on how to recognize and respond to people who have autism. He is also the father of a son with autism. “Being “different” tends to elevate risk, and the overlapping characteristics of being black and having autism can often exacerbate tensions during a police encounter,” he said. One of his goals is to help police officers be able to identify autism behaviors just as quickly as they can identify the actions of someone drunk or impaired.” He added that wristbands, license plates, bumper stickers, neighborhood signs, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, and even a verbal statement such as “I have autism” can potentially help.
“My advice is that for those who want to be allies to use their white privilege to help dismantle these systems that are in place that harm black people,” Ms. Davis-Pierre stated. “Meaning, hold your community accountable. Make sure that police, school SROs (SROs are sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools), health professionals, and school staff are receiving anti-racism training as well as training on how to interact with autistic individuals (for the police and SROs). Know that Black people have to live our lives completely different because of the way society views us. Add in a disability, and its 100 times worse. Don’t rely on Black people to educate you. You have to be willing to educate yourself.”
For now, the answer to my five-year-old’s question is difficult. However, I hope the more we have this conversation, not just in our household, but in yours, in society, calling this problem out and educating those in authority, we can make progress. I ask those reading this will join me in highlighting this incredibly important issue.
For more information on CESSA and how to support it, contact Candace Coleman, at Advance Your Leadership Power (AYLP) at Access Living.
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