Sunday, July 24, 2016

Protecting Adults with Autism

The recent tragic killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have understandably put communities on edge, fearing for the lives of innocent citizens and those officers who willingly serve and protect them. Last week, a policeman in Miami, Florida, shot and wounded an unarmed man, Charles Kinsey. While some media reports are touting this incident as an example of excessive force by the police and/or racial tension because Mr. Kinsey, a black man, fully cooperated with the police orders, further details reveal another cause of this unfortunate incident: autism.
According to news reports [To read the NBC News report about this incident, please click here.], Charles Kinsey works as a behavioral therapist for a group home in Miami. When a young man with autism wandered from the group home, Mr. Kinsey went searching for him and found him holding a toy truck. Apparently, someone called the police, and confusion about the situation––specifically, the 911 caller indicated that someone had a gun––led the police to view the man with autism as a threat, putting them on high alert.
In the video filmed by a witness to the event, Mr. Kinsey can be seen lying on the ground with his hands in the air, fully cooperating with the police. In addition, he keeps explaining to the police that the other man sitting next to him is not armed and only has a toy truck in his hands. Moreover, he keeps trying to get the man with autism to cooperate with the police, repeatedly telling him to lie on his stomach, but the young man keeps screaming at him, “Shut up!” Mr. Kinsey also identifies himself as “a behavior tech at the group home” to the police as he tries to calm and protect his client, who is clearly agitated.
Responding to this incident, the National Autism Association issued a statement praising Mr. Kinsey for his valiant attempts to help the young man with autism. In addition, this statement [which can be viewed online here] explains some of the behaviors the young man displays that are common in autism. Specifically, they note elopement, wandering away from the group home; echolalia, verbally repeating something over and over; and stimming, engaging in calming behavior, such as rocking back and forth. They also note the inability to respond to verbal commands. All of these common behaviors in autism would come across as belligerence or defiance or perhaps mental illness to someone who is not aware of how people with autism might behave, especially in a crisis.
After assessing the situation, the officer intended to shoot the man with autism, thinking that he was a threat to Mr. Kinsey, but accidentally shot the caregiver instead. According to the president of the police association in Dade County, “In fearing for Mr. Kinsey’s life, the officer discharged his firearm trying to save Mr. Kinsey’s life, and he missed.” As an autism parent, what bothers me even more than the shooting of an innocent man who was trying desperately to help his client with autism is that the police were actually trying to shoot a young man with autism, viewing him as a credible danger.
The officer who wounded Mr. Kinsey explained his intentions: “I took this job to save lives and help people. I did what I had to do in a split second to accomplish that and hate to hear others paint me as something that I’m not.” I truly believe that the officer was attempting to protect Mr. Kinsey and any others whom he believed were endangered by the man with autism. However, as a parent of a young man with autism, I worry about how my son might act in a crisis and how his life might be in danger if his stereotypical autism behaviors were misinterpreted.
As the National Autism Association points out in their response to this incident, more training of police officers is needed to help them respond to and interact with people who have autism. With the increasing rates of autism, police officers are more likely to encounter adults with autism, especially those who have wandering tendencies. If police officers do not recognize typical autistic behaviors, they may misconstrue these actions as disobedience or threats. Consequently, the National Autism Association offers free resources [Please click here for these resources.] for first responders to create greater awareness and to help them protect people with autism.
While the shooting in Miami this past week was quite unfortunate, the outcome could have been even worse, had the shots met their intended target, an upset young man with autism. As parents raising adults with autism, we must emphasize to our children the need to cooperate with authorities, especially in a crisis situation. Moreover, we must help those first responders who may encounter our adult children recognize their unusual behaviors as coping mechanisms and not intentional threats to others. After all, we won’t always be around to protect our adult children with autism, and we will need those who have devoted their lives to helping others to protect our children when we cannot. In the meantime, we pray that God will watch over our children and provide divine protection to keep them safe from harm.
“For He will order His angels to protect you wherever you go.” Psalm 91:11

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