At a Buckeye, Arizona park, police officer David Grossman observed 14-year-old Connor Leibel moving his hands rigidly in front of his face, sniffing a piece of yarn, and making other unfamiliar movements. The officer thought the boy was intoxicated, held him on the ground, and handcuffed him. Leibel was simply self-stimulating, “stimming,” a very common behavior among autistic people. On the just-released body cam video, you can hear Leibel trying to calm himself by saying I’m O.K., I’m O.K.” even as he sustains cuts and bruises from being pinned to the ground. Over at the New York Times, BB pal Steve Silberman, author of the absolutely essential book Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, writes about why this kind of horrible thing happens, how it could have been much worse, and what can be done to prevent it:
This is basically a worst-case scenario for anyone who cares for someone with a developmental disability, as well as for disabled people themselves, who live every day in fear that their behavior will be misconstrued as suspicious, intoxicated or hostile by law enforcement. And the encounter could have ended up a lot more tragic. Imagine if instead of being fair-haired and rail-thin, Connor had been powerfully built and black or Hispanic. A tense police officer, approaching a young man he thought was a threat to himself or others, might have been tempted to reach for his Taser or service weapon instead of his handcuffs….
Connor Leibel’s mother filed a complaint about her son’s treatment that resulted in an internal investigation by the Buckeye Police Department. It not only cleared Officer Grossman but also came to the unsatisfying conclusion that because the autism label covers a large spectrum of symptoms and behaviors it would be very difficult to teach officers to recognize them all.
That’s certainly true: Another way to frame the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimate that one in 68 American schoolchildren is on the spectrum is that autistic people make up a large and extremely diverse minority population. But police officers do not have to become experts in every aspect of autism to learn how to recognize people on the spectrum and treat them with respect.
The Police Need to Understand Autism (NYT)