Many people who are living with a family member, loved one, or friend with autism (along with many other disabilities and conditions) live with the constant fear that something like this incident will happen to them. In a Fresco, CA news story posted this morning, another mother/parent has had to watch while their autistic child was detained and put into handcuffs during a medically related incident. While I realize this is a news story and we have not seen the complete and total story, having lived through a similar incident on more than one occasion brings out complete and utter terror for someone like me watching the video in this story.
The Autism Society has a “blurb” about “Tips for First Responders” regarding autism here. I do not and will not ever try to understand what someone in the first responder field experiences when answering a call. I have never been in that situation, but I can tell you that I have seen it very poorly handled from the first time from my viewpoint. Here in my state, there is a Mental Health Team that travels throughout the county and state, helping to respond to calls involving issues of mental health. It can be anything from someone wanting to take their life, to an overdose or a child/adult with disabilities having a crisis. We have all seen news stories of when this has gotten out of hand, misinterpreted and tragedy has struck. While I could post stories here and links to those shot, killed and maimed during incidents involved those with autism and police, just google “child with autism shot” and peruse some of the 24 MILLION results. I’m not insinuating that 24 million children have been shot, but that the topic is pervasive and widely discussed.
My own brushes with 911 for my son have been obviously traumatic, if only for their existence. I remember the first time I called. My son had a violent breakdown, which entailed extreme destruction to the walls of his room and ended with him screaming profanities and hurtling his television down the stairs, resulting in my diving out of the way. In the moment, you are just trying to keep yourself safe/unharmed and to ensure your child doesn’t do anything drastic. I called 911 and had to somehow pull myself together to ensure the officers didn’t come into the house, guns drawn. I read too many stories. I assured them there were NO weapons in the home. My son did not have any weapon on him (knife, scissors, club etc) and that he was somewhat calmed down. I stayed on the phone, explaining his diagnosis, that he was on medications, was current with therapists/doctors etc and that I believed he needed to be hospitalized.
The police arrived very quickly and I was still on the phone with 911. I met the officers at the door and told them the same thing I told the dispatcher. Fortunately, they called the mental health team and I was lucky enough that they were reasonably close and able to respond. There is only one vehicle for the ENTIRE STATE. However, the officers that arrived asked me what prompted the outburst (outburst lol). I informed them he refused to do his homework. One of the officers said, “Well, then just don’t make him do the homework.” Oh, how little you know I thought and I explained that it doesn’t work like that. Then, if you let it go, the next time, the reaction will be worse. He told me he “knew about autism, but not much”. THERE is the problem, but we already know this.
I had a similar style sticker like this, as well as cards for myself and for him to hand out in case of emergencies and issues. I certainly don’t expect the general public to be well-versed in all aspects of autism and appropriate responses. I don’t expect first responders to know it all either. However, I do expect people who are in a position to be “first on scene” to situations that are life-threatening to themselves, the person in crisis and the public/family members, to at least be well-trained in what they are seeing. I do not pretend to understand what it’s like to think a person in the home might have a weapon, to fend off a physical attack, or any of the hundreds of possible things that could happen and react with split-second accuracy. It’s just not possible 100% of the time.
However, WE CAN DO BETTER and we must make the effort to advance these directives. My son is 6’5″ and presents a formidable presence. Even back then, things were scary, when he was little. Seeing him being taken away in a police car, even though it was the mental health team’s vehicle, was overwhelming for him as well as me. What happened at the hospital was even more dramatic and traumatic for everyone, but that’s another story coming up…
First responder training is a big deal for a local autism advocacy group here in my state. Pathfinders for Autism was founded by former Baltimore Oriole “BJ” Surhoff and his wife, who have a child on the autistic spectrum. The training they have provided for first responders in all fields (police, fire, EMT, doctors, schools and more) have advanced interaction strategies and techniques for thousands. I hope that this trend continues and that millions of people learn all about how we can be helpful and aware to those around us who just might need a helping hand.
I would like to live in a world where Mister Roger’s words still ring true for everyone…