Autism & Authority

While I was busy at Comic Con an event occurred that highlights serious issues in our culture.  A behavior therapist was shot in the act of helping the person he served.  The therapist in question was black and police shootings of black people IS a HUGE problem that I do not want to casually dismiss.  However, my focus here will be on the fact that it was later stated that the person the officer was aiming at was the autistic man.


Our culture quickly dismisses disabilities that are “invisible.”  Education for the general public is often left wanting.  For example, a kid with cerebral palsy who has a walker going to a school would prompt the school to speak to the children in the school about appropriate behavior around the student.  These instructions serve to help protect the student and also open a forum for the other students to discuss and learn about the disability.  When teachers facilitate the educational conversation students end up more receptive and empathetic.  In the case of autism, especially when the student is high functioning the teachers do not discuss the disability or what it means.  Often this leads to students doing things that will prompt inappropriate behavior from the autistic student.  For example, if a student keeps brushing the arm of an autistic student when they walk by that sets of sensory issues and the autistic person starts to hit the neurotypical student.  The event could have been avoided if there had been proper education and often it is the autistic student who gets in trouble.  If I touched you and hurt you in the process hitting me would not be a good response but it would be understood to some degree.  When it happens to an autistic person that does not happen because the “touch” does not always appear to others to cause discomfort or pain.


How does this tie into the shooting in Florida?  Police officers are not trained to deal with people who are on the spectrum.  This is not the first incident of an autistic person being shot.  In one case in LA the officers who shot an autistic person said they had to make a split-second decision and their attorney stated that “they are not social workers (Hanson, 2015).” That perfectly highlights the issue, the police do not have the training to determine or handle people on the spectrum that they determine to pose a risk.  So many autistic individuals show signs of aggression it is no wonder shootings happen way too often.  These don’t even highlight the worst cases such as students who are children and are arrested because school staff do not know how to handle their charges.


These instances happen less than the shooting of black people in America because those with autism often have others to care for them.  However, I can only imagine how the risk increases exponentially when the autistic person is also black.  As Trevor Noah said on the daily show, our police jobs are too broad and we need to narrow the scope of their job to real emergencies.  In this case, the best person to handle the situation was already there doing that job and unfortunately he got shot for it.


Hanson, H. (2015, March 24). LAPD Officers Who Shot Unarmed Man With Autism Awarded Millions In Discrimination Lawsuit. Retrieved July 24, 2016, from