Saturday, September 23, 2017

Guest Post: Every Right

Today's post comes from my friend Mike Lawson who has written to local authorities of his community in Tennessee about appropriate training for first responders when it comes to dealing with  citizens who are developmentally disabled and/or on the autism spectrum. I think he has extremely valid concerns and I hope to learn more about what training our officers receive here in Howard County.


I emailed this letter to the City of Fairview, TN's mayor, vice-mayor, three commissioners, city manager, police chief, fire chief, and copied my contact at The ARC of Williamson County, the local paper and a TV station. I hope I get a good reply:

Dear Mayor Carroll and Fairview Government;

What specific training do our police and other first responders get in recognizing and interacting with the autistic and others in the developmentally disabled community here in Fairview?

 Is this training mandatory for new recruits, and is it an ongoing continuing education refresher course for existing workers?

We spend a lot of time, money and effort to teach our LEOs and others to recognized behavior causes by “people on drugs” that can if applied to the developmentally disabled, can lead to false assumptions and sometimes, tragic results.

I have no clue about what our city does to protect these vulnerable citizens by training our government employees. Please help me understand.

This story, small town like Fairview, untrained LEO:

This was a 14-year-old autistic child, “twiddling” with a string, or as he told the officer, he was stimming. The child told him he was stimming, which is kind of impressive that the kid knew to call it that.

The officer’s first thought, he must be on drugs. He never heard of stimming. Not a clue that he was talking to a disabled child. None. Whatsoever. It escalated quickly. Fortunately, he was not seriously harmed. But that child was terrified and tackled.

Critics say, “well the kid walked away.” They say, “Where was his caretaker?” They say, “He should have been taught not to walk away from a cop.” They say all manner of ignorant things, because they don’t comprehend the autistic mind. They are not trained.

This could have easily been my 24 year old adult daughter Kelly walking in Bowie Park.

This child in AZ had no complaint called in on him. This was an untrained officer using his drug training to make a wild leap to conclude the child must be on drugs. This child did nothing wrong except stand there and dangle a string and look “weird” doing it. Imagine the tragedy that could have happened and nearly did.

My daughter still stims when she is excited. And when she was a child, she did something similar to  this child in AZ, with a coat hanger and a tank top hooked over the hook end of the hanger, which she  would dangle and shake and stare at. To the untrained LEO eye, or any eye looking to blame  “drugs” this could have been her, too.

This story from Miami: 

where an unarmed, still and on the ground caretaker, was hit by a bullet from an assault rifle fired by a North Miami police officer. "Kinsey said when he asked the officer why he fired his weapon, the cop responded, “I don’t know.” This could easily happen at the Rec Center far from the Waves side if a client decides to bolt on them. When my daughter went to Waves a few years ago, she did something similar when she was having a bad day.

This from the NYT in reference to the recent AZ incident:

Nothing scares the hell out of me more than the thought of my 24 year old daughter having a minor meltdown at a store here, or anywhere for that matter, and having an untrained LEO interact with her and escalate the situation into a tazing, or physical altercation, or worse, her getting shot because that officer thought she was on drugs or “fear for their life” and pulled their service revolver.

You must know we have a very large population of developmentally disabled adults and children in Fairview, with the multiple WAVES homes, and the Waves center, and the unseen population of them like my daughter and her friends. There is nothing to stop one of my well-meaning Kingwood subdivision neighbors who don’t know Kelly, from calling FPD if they see her walking in the neighborhood, talking to herself or singing loudly, and “acting like she is on drugs:” And FPD’s response is going to be to send a car out maybe with lights flashing, maybe multiple cars, try to stop and question her, and all hell could potentially break loose. But yet, Kelly has every right to walk down the street, even acting, “weird” as long as she isn’t hurting anyone or herself. Every right. And every right to not be stopped for doing so in spite of a call to the contrary.

I almost feel like I need to post a sign at my home stating an autistic adult lives here, just to keep untrained emergency responders from going to their go-to training of “she must be on drugs, get the handcuffs taser, gun out…” and it is extremely worrisome. We parents have enough things to worry  about over our child’s lifetime.

So, how is our city training our first responders to deal with this very real issue here in our little town?


Mike Lawson is a professional musician, the Executive Director of TI:ME, and the Editor of School Band and Orchestra magazine.

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