The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’ve taught my kids to obey the police. But my son with autism isn’t wired for that.

His brown skin isn't the only thing that could endanger him in an encounter with law enforcement.


I worry that all of my children will have problems dealing with the police, but for different reasons.

Damien, 11, is the darkest and most clearly non-white of my children. His first response when given any order is to question, not comply, and most cops I’ve seen don’t take that too kindly.

Antonio, whose skin tone looks more like my dark bronze hue, has at the tender age of 5 convinced himself, and everyone he gets a chance to ramble on to, that he will be a police officer as soon as he turns 21. He especially loves the fact that they can carry guns. Every L-shaped twig that he passes becomes a handgun, a habit I hope he drops before he reaches the same age as Tamir Rice.

And then there is Joseph. His mother and I realized early on that Joseph wasn’t neurotypical. Before he was 3, he would stack his toys, spin in circles and speak only in echolalic cadence. After years of therapy, Joseph, now 8, is mostly verbal, but he is still unable to communicate the way most people comprehend. Most of the words he spouts are repetitive lines from cartoons and telenovelas, hardly the type of speech that would make sense to someone who barely knows him.

It can be frustrating being responsible for someone whom most of the world doesn’t understand, but it has its rewards, beyond his infectious smile. Communicating is like passing secret, coded messages with your best friend in childhood. I know that he’s referring to himself when he says “you.” I know that when he has an outburst, his screams aren’t from pain but from being misunderstood. The Joseph I know isn’t the one the world sees, and I’m okay with that. We call him Jojo at home, because we understand him as a different person than everyone else does.

Every now and then, though, I get a painful reminder that the secret language we speak could lead to dangerous situations, especially when it comes to the police. The video of behavioral technician Charles Kinsey, who was shot by North Miami police while trying to help his patient, Arnaldo Eliud Rios Soto, a 26-year-old on the autism spectrum, was the most recent.

I watched Kinsey fruitlessly pleading with the cops not to shoot his patient before taking a bullet himself, and all I could see was Jojo. When my son has an outburst in public, he sometimes screams at me the way Rios was screaming at his caretaker. His words make little sense to kind strangers passing by — and would make even less sense to an officer pointing a lethal weapon at him.

After my first encounter with an overzealous cop at the age of 16, my father told me never to resist an officer. “Always do whatever a cop tells you to do. No matter how bad it seems,” he said. “Give them what they want, and argue in front of a judge later. It may be humiliating, but it’s better than going to a hospital, or a jail, or a hospital in a jail. Or worse, not coming home at all.”

Comply, comply, comply was what I was taught, and it’s what I’ve been teaching my sons, to the point that they can probably repeat the speech my father gave me. But how am I supposed to teach those words to someone who doesn’t understand language the way I do? How am I supposed to warn my son about the dangers facing those who look like him when he can’t even conceptualize those differences?

Jojo can’t scream “I can’t breathe” while being held down, like Eric Garner. He wouldn’t react to an officer pulling up next to him with sirens blasting and guns drawn, like Tamir Rice. He can’t even put his hands up and yell that he doesn’t have a gun, like Charles Kinsey. It’s not that he wouldn’t comply; it’s that he simply isn’t wired to, and he never will be. I can tell him to listen to and obey anyone wearing a uniform until my last breath, and it would be the same as if I never spoke at all.

Sometimes I lie awake in bed and wonder what the world is like to Joseph. It’s akin to being mute, mostly deaf, halfway blind, and dropped off in a country where you can’t read or write the language. It must be frustrating and depressing to be around people who don’t understand you and don’t care to try. This is why I have fought my hardest to make his world as comfortable as possible.

We rarely go to the movies, which are too loud for him. He prefers public transportation, so we almost never set foot in a car. We walk more than anything, because he used to have outbursts when the numbers on top of the bus didn’t match the ones in his mind. (We’ve been kicked off while dealing with that issue.) He has an incredible memory, one that can recall the most minute details of trips from years ago, like where the bathroom is in the Times Square M&M store or the preferred music of my former in-laws, whom he hasn’t seen in years. But I have had to lead him away from strangers because he doesn’t understand personal space, and tends to gift hugs at will or grab the phone of any passenger on the subway to ask if they have his favorite game. He talks to himself at times, mostly repeating lines from his favorite TV shows. He has even escaped from his mother’s house on a couple of occasions while visiting her. Once, he was found by a police officer at 3 a.m. near a closed gas station. As soon as he came back from that visit, I held him tighter than usual, thankful that his late-night quest for a Slurpee didn’t end in a body bag.

So how am I supposed to tell him that the police might not understand what he is trying to do or say, and that could lead to his own funeral? What am I supposed to say to stop him from having an outburst that could potentially endanger him, or his brothers, or his caretakers, or myself, for not being able to explain to a threatening officer that he is merely being himself — even when he’s screaming, kicking, cursing and spitting?

I hear stories of people like Brian C. Bates, who had run off from his home in Virginia. Neighbors called the cops after hearing him repeating the names of pro wrestlers and talking to cats, things I could see Jojo doing. Four officers tackled him. They couldn’t make out that he was different, and he was knocked down repeatedly.

Then there’s Robert Ethan Saylor, who had the benefit of white skin and clearly presented as having Down’s syndrome, but was choked to death by off-duty officers in a Maryland movie theater. The officers, who were trying to remove Saylor from the theater and didn’t recognize his condition, were not charged with a crime because Saylor cursed and struck at them — another way Jojo lashes out if he feels threatened.

These stories, and the story of Kinsey and Rios in Miami, leave me terrified to even take Jojo out in public. I don’t understand how North Miami officer Jonathan Aledda wasn’t able to identify the signs of a disability — Rios was screaming, but also rocking back and forth and holding a toy truck. Like many police departments, the North Miami force has a dangerous learning gap to overcome in regard to some of the community’s most vulnerable citizens, a point made even clearer when the initial police statement about the shooting identified Rios as a person “suffering from autism,” as if it was a debilitating physical affliction, like say, a gunshot.

Some support groups have tried to offer training to law enforcement on how to deal with an individual with autism, but that’s of little comfort if the training isn’t mandatory nationwide. Even the president of the District of Columbia Autism Society, former cop Ronald Hampton, says he would rather call another parent than a police officer if his child had an outburst.

A day after I read about the Florida shooting, I had the talk again with my children. Damien told me he would do everything Kinsey did if he were in the same situation, but the life in his face died when he realized that he would still end up shot. Antonio told me he would arrest the bad guy, including the bad cop, which showed me he’s still unable to grasp the gravity of the situation. Joseph simply threw a thumbs-down while saying “cop” and then gave a thumbs-up for “pizza.”

I don’t think he will ever understand the reality of the world that I brought him into, but I hope one day he is able to. Until then, I will keep having this one-sided conversation and keep treating cops like they are the real public health risk facing my sons, not their skin color or disability.