Cay Burton: Defund the police—a case for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs)

Sometimes, people with this condition will bolt in a hurry and that can put them in jeopardy if they come in contact with armed officers who don't understand their behaviour

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      By Cay Burton

      I am a caregiver for an autistic 15-year-old with high support needs. He requires 24-hour support to promote caution and awareness of his surroundings, especially in a city like Vancouver. 

      Last month, I was masked and on my way to meet him at the school bus when the police called, saying they had found him shoeless and coatless and running in and out of traffic. He had bolted from school, managed to take at least one public transit bus without a Compass card, and was now in police custody.

      “Elopement” (also known as “bolting” or “wandering”) describes a behaviour people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) sometimes exhibit when they are overstimulated, frightened, panicked, bored, curious, avoidant, or otherwise inspired to leave a familiar environment.

      Sometimes, autistic people will elope in a hurry, like this teen did. Sometimes, they wander out of a room without anyone noticing. Like always, it depends on the person and the things they find motivating. But the risks, regardless of motivation, are very real, especially when police are involved. 

      I was escorted in a partitioned vehicle to where police had apprehended him. 

      I thought I was going to a police station out of the rain. Instead, I was driven to the entrance of a medical office building on Broadway, where at least four fully weaponized officers stood equidistance around the perimeter. I saw the teenager I nanny on the ground, huddled in a cold corner of the concrete. He was wearing an aluminum emergency blanket and looked totally terrified, because none of the police officers knew how to communicate with him. 

      Even though the police had removed this teen from the immediate danger of traffic, the fact that they did not know how to engage with an autistic young person is a serious problem. Now that this teen was in police custody, the danger to him was different.

      There’s a set of social rules dictating “appropriate” behaviour during interactions with police officers as arbiters of the law; it is the social aspect of situations that can take the longest to learn and understand for autistic adolescents like the teen I work with. Police intervention in supporting a lost and panicked teenager with an ASD is not something that should be normalized. 

      Why is there no intermediate intervention or any other organization we can call when a youth looks severely distraught? Why is the default 9-1-1 or the Ministry of Family and Child Development (MCFD)? 

      The answer to these questions is to defund the police. We need to have a middle organization available for responsible passersby to call when they witness a youth in crisis. Police involvement should always be a very last resort because it is dangerous. 

      “Defund the police” is a rallying cry for why police involvement should always be a last resort. This slogan emerged from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, in response to the unnecessary deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, among too many others. Acknowledging the urgency and specificity of what this phrase means for the livelihood of Black Peoples, it is important to be aware of how policing directly impacts youth of all racial identities within the autistic community. 

      Before adulthood, 20 percent of teens on the spectrum will be questioned by the police. The cautionary elements of that statistic are compounded by figures revealing that Black boys are three times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers. The deaths of Elijah McClain and Troy Canales are tragic examples of how police institutions fail Black boys who are “different”, whether or not they are diagnosed as autistic.

      In the last week, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and Peyton Ham have sadly been added to this list of fatalities.

      While both myself and the child I care for benefit from white privilege that minimizes potential subjugation exhibited toward him by law enforcement, his ASD places him in a precarious position any time he interacts with the police. I don’t like having to calculate the odds around disability, race, and gender when it comes to police brutality, but that calculation is very much at the forefront of my mind when I work with this teen.

      In addition to defunding the police, we need adequate training on autism for officers so that they are not deferring to traumatized children and caregivers in moments of emergency. Because when I sat on the ground with this teen’s head resting in my lap, waiting for his breathing to slow, and asked about the next step, I was told, “We were hoping you would know what to do.”

      With comprehensive training, his fight-or-flight behaviours (verbal non-responsiveness, self-stimulatory behaviour, and loud perseveration) could have been recognized as a disability, instead of misinterpreted as noncompliance, by the police that day. Being able to label his behaviour as austistic—instead of implying it was due to drugs—would have de-escalated the situation for everyone involved. 

      The emergency blanket and an extra pair of socks were given to him by a compassionate cashier at the nearby pharmacy, and not the police. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this act of community care. It softened the situation for me and this teen, and provided a small amount of comfort in this traumatic situation. 

      This day was a wake-up call for me and the adults in this teen’s life. We’re all so lucky that he is safe. I’m working with his parents, teachers, and behaviour consultant to develop a proactive protocol for future elopement that does not rely on the police.

      Vigilance and care for each other need to be the loudest part of our advocacy as we imagine new possibilities for social engagement in a post-pandemic world. The ASD community must continue to stand in solidarity with other movements calling to defund the police, so that autistic teens of all racial identities receive the support they need both during crises and in the everyday.

      April is Autism Awareness Month. Let’s increase community safety by defunding the police. 

      Cay Burton cares for a youth with an autism spectrum disorder. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.