(Editor’s note: This is the first of four columns addressing autism awareness.)
By DENNIS A. BROWN II
(In 2017 I wrote a three-part series about how autism can be stressful for parents, teachers, and employers and that patience should be exercised in dealing with people in the ASD. I left one group out: Law Enforcement. Why I did so is beyond me.)
I had an extreme bout with depression the day after Super Bowl Sunday 2007. My brother called the police and I was taken to a hospital in handcuffs. Before my release after a week at another hospital, I received the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.
Autism Speaks says that police will encounter numerous emergency situations on a regular basis and must follow protocol. But dealing with people who have autism is out of the ordinary. Among the signs of autism that law enforcement might face are a “fight or flight” reaction, being unable to respond to verbal commands, avoiding eye contact, having a seizure, being frightened by police, having delayed speech, and displaying repetitive behaviors that police could perceive as threatening.
A 2007 report by the Autism Society of America says that about 23 percent of those with autism will encounter a first responder including law enforcement. But here are some numbers that might make you cringe: A July 14, 2016, report from The Mighty says that more than one-third of people with disabilities are subjected to police brutality. A February 20, 2013, report from Alertnet.org says that people with mental disabilities are five times more likely to be subjected to police brutality which is mostly done by groups of officers.
Here are some incidents:
On April 12, 2017, John Haygood of Okeechobee, Fla, who has autism, was 10 years old when he was arrested by police at the Okeechobee Achievement Academy. It stemmed from an assault in October 2016 where a teacher’s aide was allegedly kicked and scratched. The arrest was videotaped by his mother, Luanne, where he said that he didn’t want to be touched. A representative of the Autism Society of America said that legal assistance would be provided. A not-guilty plea was entered. In February 2018, he was facing additional felony battery charges from incidents that occurred in 2015.
On Aug. 31, 2015, Metro Transit Police in St. Paul, Minn., arrived at a railroad station where 17-year-old Marcus Abrams, who has Asperger’s syndrome, was standing on tracks when he and two other people were reportedly leaving the Minnesota State Fair. Officers Richard Wegner and Paul Buzicky confronted Abrams and supposedly grabbed and took him to the ground because they thought he was intoxicated or on drugs. The officers continued to assault Abrams when he attempted to fight back. Abrams became unconscious, had two seizures, and suffered facial cuts.
After an internal affairs investigation, Wegner was terminated when he was on his probation period while Buzicky remained on the force. Abrams didn’t face any charges but filed a $350,000 lawsuit against the Metropolitan Council and the two officers.
On April 21, 2015, David Dehmann, a 33-year-old with autism and Tourette’s syndrome, was picked up by police in Mount Vernon, Ohio, for disorderly conduct near
a public school. Dehmann was being cooperative with the deputies and displaying a playful attitude until encountering Knox County Deputy Chase Wright. When Dehmann tried to playfully touch Deputy Wright, Wright slapped Dehmann’s hand away, picked up Dehmann and slammed him to the floor. Dehmann died from massive head injuries. Wright was placed on administrative leave but returned to desk duty. Wright was cleared of any wrong-doing by a grand jury over a year later.
In the 2017 series of editorials I stated that preventing incidents where people with autism are abused or mistreated is difficult because autism itself is difficult to diagnose with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder becoming contributing factors. Autism Speaks says that the problem is that law enforcement may have very little training, if any, on recognizing, communicating, and responding properly in the interactions with those in the autism spectrum disorder.
Law enforcement needs to be thoroughly trained on dealing with people who have autism. On the same token, however, those with autism shouldn’t be left alone to defend
themselves against law enforcement.
(Next week, the first of a two-part series on why turning your backs on people in the autism spectrum disorder can be serious and can lead to tragedy. A tragic example of it happened in Michigan.)
(Dennis A. Brown II is originally from Louisville, Ky., and currently lives in Dearborn. He currently is a junior clerk in the Treasurer’s Office for the city of Melvindale. He was diagnosed with autism at 17 and with severe Asperger’s syndrome at 35. He is a former radio broadcaster and volunteers his time and effort by writing, recording, and producing a series of public service announcements about autism awareness for non-commercial radio stations.)