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Police and Autism: A Unique Perspective

Dad n dadBy Jerry Turning

Alex was 5’9 and every bit of 200 lbs.  He was “uncontrollable” and destroying his family’s home.  We arrived to find Alex’s grandmother on the front porch.  Her arms were literally purple with bruises; the aftermath of one of Alex’s tantrums earlier in the month.  She directed us inside where Alex’s mother was trying in vain to calm him down.  We found him in the basement lying on his back.  Mom was trying to hold his hands.  She was crying.  She was sweating.  She was bleeding.  Around him were toddler toys:  Elmo dolls, a ring-toss game, coloring books.  There were no toddlers in the house.  The toys were Alex’s.  Alex was 14 years old.  He had Autism. 

In recent months there have been many high profile incidents concerning police using force to deal with children and adults on the Spectrum:

-Police Taser Autistic Teen and Then, After Family Complains, Return and Arrest Teen

-Teen with autism shot to death by police

-Autistic Man with Toy Gun Killed by Miami Police Officers

The most gut-wrenching of these incidents involved a young man named Stephon Watts.  Stephon, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, was shot and killed by police in Calumet City, Ill on February 1st, 2012 after he slashed an officer with a kitchen knife.  This incident has gained national attention and stirred outrage within the ASD community.  I would like to offer my perspective. 

I am a 16 year-veteran police officer.  I am a police K9 handler and trainer with 12 years experience in searching for wandering ASD individuals.  I am also an Autism Dad. 

I see my son in the eyes of every ASD individual I meet.  After I met Alex and we finally got him under control, I pulled my patrol car off the road and cried for 30 minutes.  Believe me when I tell you, I fully understand both sides of the Stephon Watts incident. 

Police officers are not diagnosticians.  Our job is public safety.  Our role is to protect the physical safety of the public we serve.  But make no mistake, our primary focus is on our own family and surviving our shift to return home to them.  Police officers make dozens of split second decisions a day.  Many of them involve life and death.  Sometimes we get it wrong.  Most of the time we get it right.  Tragically, on occasion, we get it right but still suffer the haunting agony that follows from ending a human life.  I do not know the Calumet City police officers who shot and killed Stephon.  There will be an Internal Affairs Investigation to determine the propriety of their actions.  I am confident, however, that they are grieving today.  They are questioning themselves and they are praying for forgiveness to whatever God they believe in.  I pray for them and I pray for Stephon and his family.  And I ask that you do to. 

Statistics show that Special Needs individuals are seven times more likely to interact with the police than neurotypical individuals.  We are professionals.  We can do better.  We can increase our awareness and improve our training in dealing with Special Needs individuals.  Today I make a solemn promise to Stephon’s family and my own.  I will do my part.

Jerry Turning, Jr. was born and raised in New Jersey.  He has lived on the Jersey Shore his entire life.  Jerry graduated from the University of Delaware (Go Hens!) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology (1995) and earned his Masters Degree in Organizational Management from the University of Phoenix (2009) while working and raising a family.  Jerry is a police Lieutenant in a municipal police department and has spent the majority of his career in K9.  He is a certified police K9 Handler and Trainer.  Jerry and his wife Jo-Ann were married in 1998 and they have two amazing kids:  Anna (born in 2001, although you’d think she was 22) and Eric (born in 2004).  Eric was diagnosed with Autism at 2.5 years old.  Jerry recently began spilling his guts about the past 5 years struggling and celebrating the world of Autism in his personal blog, Bacon and Juice Boxes:  Our Life With Autism.  In what ever free time he has (read that as -- not much!), he enjoys cycling, running, and his most recent therapeutic obsession:  triathlon training

Comments

Tim Sutton

I just ran across this article. I am a 25 year veteran in law enforcement and have been training public safety in the state of VA on Autism for the past few years. I also teach Alzheimer's, and travel with the International Association of Chief's throughout the country training public safety and anyone who will listen. I have started my own consulting business and want to teach any and all who will listen. While most officers are interested in teaching about guns, driving and defensive tactics, I want to help caregivers and parents dealing with special needs. Many parents of these children do not think about 15 years down the road when their child is an adult and exhibits many of the same behaviors. The thought of what may happen if that parent isn't there if a police officer shows up is scary. My goal is to give anyone who will listen, A Better Understanding of the behaviors associated with the disorders. Please know that there are police officers out here who care and understand some of the struggles parents deal with. And I will answer the question I am always asked when I passionately teach the topic of ASD. No I do not have a child with special needs. I just see the need for education people. Please learn more about what I am trying to do and spread the word. a-betterunderstanding.com email aaawareness12@yahoo.com

Bob Smith

Wow, I just came across this site as I was researching Autism Abuse in schools, etc. As many of you, I was in tears reading the story because as a middle school teacher Special Education (SDC-Severely Impaired) Teacher, I have the bruises, bite marks, scratches and scars. I understand the physical and emotional roller coaster of tantrums and behavior modification.

I am interested in how I as a teacher can promote awareness with students with severe disabilities including Autism. I do the benefits, conferences, concerts, etc. But, realistically, in the community in which I teach and my students live how do I promote awareness???

Amy Becker

Wow, thank you, Jerry.
After I mopped the tears off my face, I shared this on Facebook with the following comment:

Today's tears.
Yea, and the autism epidemic is just the re-labeling the millions of people who were previously called "quirky." Fuck you, APA. When you get a clue about what autism is, THEN you can define it. Take your politically-motivated DSM-V and shove it up your ass.

Sorry, but there's something about absolute truth, and the empathy and compassion you expressed, that just gets me riled up.

Betsy

We have a First Responder Training that we are trying to implement in as many states as possible. We recently received a grant from FEMA to train Firefighters in 14 different states throughout the U.S. The unique model we use with our training is that all the presenters are professionals in the field being trained (Police Officers are trained by a fellow Police Officer, Firefighters are trained by a fellow Firefighter, EMT's by an EMT, etc.) AND they MUST have a loved one diagnosed on the autism spectrum. If you are interested in learning more about the program, please visit our facebook page or our website at:
www.facebook.com/ALECtraining and www.sncarc.org/ALEC
We do not make a profit off of this training. It was an initiative started by parents at a local non-profit organization. Our mission is to spread the word about autism amongst our First Responders and ensure the safety of BOTH people with autism AND our First Responders. The goal of ALEC trainings is to complement but not replace previous First Responder training and provide additional tools to use in assessing the risk of a situation.

Janet Presson

Jerry,

Fantastic article! I am forwarding it to my husband's nephew-in-law who is a police officer in Virginia. He and his wife are the ones who will take our son if anything happens to us and therefore they have both taken a very special interest in young adults with autism. While Rob doesn't have any challenging behaviors at this time( Thank God!) I work with plenty of individuals on the spectrum who do. Especially in this election year, everyone needs to take every opportunity possible to talk with ALL of their elected officials AND those who are running for office about our kids and the challenges that accompany them. ASD needs to be a major issue for every elected official and politician in this country and then, and only then, will something change!

Matthew Fleischmann

Hi Jerry,
My name is Matthew Fleischmann and I am a fourth year psychology student interested in going into forensic psychology. I hope to focus on how the police interact with the mentally ill on a daily basis. I also have a 17 year old sister with severe autism and this story spoke to me on both an academic and personal level. I'd love to be in touch with you if possible to discuss police and their relationship with the mental health community.

Adriana

Thank you, Jerry. I have to echo Donna's words: "No judgment here, only understanding. And the incessant, underlying belief that this entire epidemic should never have happened in the first place."

Tina

My husband recently gained custody of his 16 year old, extremely aggressive son who is on the lower end of the spectrum. In the last 3 months, I have needed to go to the ER for a concussion and a broken nose. One of the most frustrating things for us to deal with as a family is that we can't find an organization to train US how to respond safely when he becomes aggressive. We've contacted CPI, SafetyCare, Mandt -- the companies that are providing the training to hospital and school workers -- but they all say that they don't want the liability of training families. I think in addition to police being trained to interact better with autistic kids, we as parents need to be given the tools to better keep everyone involved safe during a crisis.

Lisa @ TACA

Thank you for this article

MotherofPossibility

Just an FYI, Cal City is a rough town. I feel for the police in high crime areas. I lived not far from there for 6 years. I doubt the police there have much training if any on autism.

Donna L.

As the mother of a child with autism who is prone to violent, aggressive outbursts, I can, like you, see both sides of the issue.

These are extremely volatile situations, dealing with enraged individuals who most likely have limited receptive and/or expressive language capacities combined with super-human strength and incredibly fast and unpredictable movement. Throw weapons into the mix and it's a recipe for disaster. You're not even operating in the realm of good vs. bad, lawful vs. unlawful; it's another whole world entirely. And like Bob Moffitt stated, nobody - parents, police officers, teachers, etc. - knows quite how to deal with it because it is a NEW phenomenon.

I'd be willing to bet that most police officers didn't choose to enter that profession knowing that they would eventually end up protecting parents from their violent children. Something is very clearly wrong here. My dream these days is that police officers, teachers, etc. will band together as professional organizations to confront public health officials about how our nation's healthcare (i.e. vaccine program) is destroying our children. Where we parents have been largely ignored in our pleas for change, maybe you folks would collectively have more bargaining power.

Anyway, thank you, Jerry, for writing about this from your perspective as both an autism parent and a police officer. Sadly, I 'get' how this could have happened to poor Stephon and his family. No judgment here, only understanding. And the incessant, underlying belief that this entire epidemic should never have happened in the first place.

Diane

Jerry,

These tragic stories always make me cry. I even think that calling the police might not be on my list - rather have my son alive than risk a tragedy. To date my son has not been violent, but puberty is looming and I know that kids can get aggressive.

What can we do as parents and activists to educate our law enforcement. These young men's lives should not be in vain - please help us to prevent future tragedies. Perhaps the IACP or local Police Associations?

Bob Moffitt

"Alex was 5’9 and every bit of 200 lbs. He was “uncontrollable” and destroying his family’s home. We arrived to find Alex’s grandmother on the front porch. Her arms were literally purple with bruises; the aftermath of one of Alex’s tantrums earlier in the month. She directed us inside where Alex’s mother was trying in vain to calm him down. We found him in the basement lying on his back. Mom was trying to hold his hands. She was crying. She was sweating. She was bleeding. Around him were toddler toys: Elmo dolls, a ring-toss game, coloring books. There were no toddlers in the house. The toys were Alex’s. Alex was 14 years old. He had Autism.

Jerry .. you being an "autism dad" .. me being an "autism granddad" .. I can fully understand why you felt the need to pull your patrol car off the road and cry for thirty minutes after dealing with Alex and his family.

Having said that .. I retired 20 odd years ago .. after serving 24 years "on the job" in NYC. I never once heard the word "autism" in my entire career nor the decade of retirement years that followed .. in fact .. the very first time I heard autism was tweleve years ago .. when my grandson "regressed".

My friend .. 40 years ago .. if police departments throughout the country were experiencing "high profile incidents requiring the use of force to deal with children and adults on the Spectrum" .. NOT ONLY WOULD POLICE HAVE HEARD ABOUT IT .. THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN TRAINED TO DEAL WITH IT .. AND .. MOST IMPORTANTLY .. THEY WOULD HAVE EXPERIENCED SUCH INCIDENTS THEMSELVES!!

(I apologize for shouting .. but .. I do tend to get frustrated when I hear all the "experts" telling me there has been no increase in autism.)

Jerry Turning

Thank you, everybody, for your comments and feedback. And thank you, Age of Autism for letting me share my opinions!

Alisa, that is the hard part, isn't it? Turning the passion into action... I have some rough ideas that I'm trying to hash out. I will keep you posted as I develop them. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them. Step one is having this conversation, is it not? Thank you again for your kind words.

-Jerry

Bobbi Moseley

My daughter was recently tasered. I have never had a problem when the police have come to the house before but this time I do. IT IS ALL ABOUT TRAINING and there is training out there. All of the other times the police have been calm and have reassured her. This time it didn't happen that way, they broke down a locked door and she reacted by picking up a flute to strike them. No talking her down was done at all. We need to have training done but not just police officers but firemen, paramedics, 911 staff etc.

alisa cooney

I really think its time to have special task force of police trained to deal with special needs situations. I'm a mum to 3 asd kids and thay are high functioning but thay still have their meltdown over change, I worry so much as they get order will I be able ensure they learn to do right thing socially and or can I keep them safe for the rest of their life. This includes safe from police, I my self suffer from OCD and other mental illnesses PTSD from a home invasion, and encounter with south Australian police has left me very angry and worried for my self and my kids. I was only doing a petition out side my kids school grounds I'd left by my self when I was called by the police and asked to meet to talk, so I did but never expected to be treated worse after telling them I have anxiety, PTSD, and depression. They treated me worse than the guy who did the home invasion. It took me almost a year to really get over the incident and that was after having my meds increased. It makes me very worried about future interaction with police if I ocd in public or in front police again.

Gina Badalaty

As an autism parent, I am so grateful that you wrote this and I will share it with my friends. I wonder, do you have ideas or thoughts on how law enforcement can "do better"? Training of some type? Because of the passion in your article, I hope you pursue that, if you can. Thanks for sharing.

Cat Jameson

No one knows what it's like to walk in our shoes until they have done so--your shoes have double duty of increased stress and unknown situations. Thank you for your honesty and understanding.

Nonna C

My son-in-law is a police officer and his 12 year old son (my grandson) has autism. I can totally relate to the message you have so eloquently written. Awareness is key! Thank you.

wewillwin

Sorry, not buying it. I live in New Jersey and the policemen here tend to wildly overreact to just about everything.

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