Recently, I spent nearly four hours discussing autism with someone functioning at the high end of the spectrum. This person could not grasp how my older brother Anthony, 21, could have “low verbal” autism with no conversational skills. I am 18, a rising senior in high school, and Anthony’s only sibling. While this person’s verbal skills seemed impressive, I could not make myself understood. To this individual, merely being verbal implied conversational skills. I did my best to explain Anthony’s limited ability to formulate spontaneous speech citing many examples, but I could not sway their opinion. This was a sobering experience that left me in tears. Many times in my life, I had been asked to explain my brother’s condition, usually with scrutiny. This lack of understanding makes me afraid for Anthony, and the societal expectations placed upon him.
I was asked to respond to a news article from the Washington Post dated March 13, 2011: In VA. Assault Case, Anxious Parents Recognize 'Dark Side of Autism' by Theresa Vargas. In this article, Reginald “Neli” Latson, 19 with Asperger’s syndrome, was found guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer, and it was recommended that he spend 10 ½ years in jail. This article described the concerns of parents who have aging children with autism, and described the aggressive tendencies many families suffer through. Parents were fearful that their adult children with autism would fall victim to a justice system that they do not fully comprehend.
The article described an unfortunate scenario where some elementary school children saw Latson waiting alone outside a public library, which was closed. They thought he looked suspicious and might have a gun, and alerted a crossing guard. The school went into lockdown, and School Resource Officer Deputy Thomas Calverley approached Latson. There was no gun, and the children later reported they never saw one. Calverley testified that Latson refused to give his name several times, and became aggressive when the deputy grabbed him and said he was under arrest. Calverley bent Latson over the hood of a car, and the two began wrestling and fell to the ground. During the struggle, Latson flipped Calverley hard on his back hitting his head on the pavement. According to reports, Latson hit the deputy several times, took his pepper spray, and shattered his ankle. Latson's attorneys offered an insanity defense stating that Latson was diagnosed with explosive disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and could not control his behavior because of an "irresistible impulse." The jury found Latson guilty of four charges including assault of a law enforcement officer, and wounding in the commission of a felony. According the official blog for Autism Speaks, the judge accepted the plan proposed by the defense for hospitalization at a Virginia psychiatric facility for several months followed by intensive services at the residential school. The jury’s sentence of more than 10 years was set aside in favor of an imposed two year period of incarceration, with the remaining eight years “suspended.” That meant that the remaining 8 years could be imposed if Neli did not cooperate with the terms of his probation.
Reading this story made me horrified to think that people with autism could be locked away for as much as 10 years and may or may not understand what they had done. As more people with autism are aging into adulthood, this scenario will become more common. With autism numbers rising, law enforcement needs to be knowledgeable about the spectrum of autism, sensory and communication challenges, and not be so quick to arrest someone that resists giving their name. Law enforcement officers need to identify a person with autism more readily, and approach the situation more delicately. Many people with autism suffer sensory issues, and would resist being grabbed. My brother Anthony is mild mannered and not especially aggressive, but I could imagine him fighting to escape an officer if suddenly grabbed. While Anthony has a young child’s view of what a police officer does, he does not understand the concept of being arrested, and the consequences of resisting. Even if not normally aggressive, a person with autism could become agitated and physical in an overwhelming situation. While simply trying to escape something unpleasant, they might be perceived as resisting arrest.
Anthony has excessive echolalia (rote repeating of dialogue) and OCD. I am always fearful in public that someone will get irritated with the noise, and confront my brother. I am not confident that strangers will be tolerant that Anthony has special needs. My brother can’t report on his own behalf, and would be vulnerable to abuse. In addition, false claims could be made against my brother, and it is my concern that law enforcement might give more credence to a verbal reporter over a non verbal one. Because of this, we never leave my brother unattended. We need to mediate for him in all situations.
My family has always been concerned for Anthony’s safety at the hands of the public. As a result, Anthony is never left unsupervised. My father was especially concerned after reading about the fatal beating of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia and a history of mental illness from Fullerton, California. While investigating a report of vandalism, law enforcement officers discovered Thomas who was shirtless and disheveled. Initial reports claimed that Thomas had been combative with officers, however the police department confirmed that Thomas was unarmed, and the only one with significant injuries. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas used digital audio recording devices carried by the officers, and surveillance video from the Fullerton Transportation Center to show Thomas did comply with law enforcement. Officer Manuel Ramos put on latex gloves and asked Thomas "Now see my fists? They are getting ready to fuck you up." Thomas begged for his life before being beaten to death. The video shows the officers repeatedly shocking Thomas, beating him with tasers and flashlights, and slamming him into the ground. According to a witness statement, Thomas was screaming "Dad! Dad!” Thomas was comatose when he arrived at the UC Irvine Medical Center. Medical records show that bones in his face were broken, and Thomas choked on his own blood. The coroner concluded that compression of his thorax made it impossible for Thomas to breathe normally, and his brain was deprived of oxygen. His parents removed him from life support, and Thomas died from his injuries on July 10, 2011. Officer Ramos was charged with one count of second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter. Corporal Jay Cicinelli was charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of excessive force. Both officers had pleaded not guilty.
This story haunted my father, and brought my mother and me to tears. I could not bring myself to look at the video. The photo image of Thomas after the beating was horrifying enough. My father, who is an adult educator, approached our local Sheriff’s Department and offered to develop free training to properly identify autism for law enforcement. He explained his concerns and my brother’s low verbal autism, and wanted to help officers with pre-engagement skills for those on the autism spectrum. My father’s goal is to make our community a safer place for Anthony. After all, the Law Enforcement Officer on duty at our high school is seen as a friendly, approachable adult by all of the special needs students. Anthony could never fathom such senseless brutality from a Police Officer. For Anthony’s safety, I allow my innocence to be eroded to ensure Anthony can keep his.
Natalie Palumbo is a high school student, younger sister to a brother with autism, and Contributing Editor for Age of Autism. Visit her art website at Deviant Art.