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Autism and Cops- When Two Worlds Meet

May 12, 2011 38 comments

This ‘In Their Own Words’ is by Joshua Bongawil, a former intern at Autism Speaks. His 28 year old brother Andrew has autism. They live in American Canyon, Calif.

Andrew, their cousin, and Joshua


When Andrew takes Louie for a walk, he strolls as if both of them are in their own world.  Andrew, in other words, is calm and focused, when he has command of our poodle.   The solace found in a relationship with a pet is one of the traits sometimes associated with people with developmental special needs. This is a part of Andrew’s autism.  I notice this, because I walk with them too.

One reason I describe Andrew’s style of walking the dog as “other worldly” is because his stride is unique. He often flails his arms mildly, turns his head around, or holds the dog’s leash over his shoulder like a heavy bag of footballs.  He does not walk like this because something is wrong with him. These physical attributes are a part of who he is. The other reason Andrew’s world is unique has to do with an encounter with a stranger in a uniform on a spring afternoon.

Our neighborhood is at the foot of a hilly area which can be a very windy place, so residents must take caution when walking the streets.  The caution also refers to the strong security placed in a new suburban development.  I never thought Andrew’s movement or how he walked with Louie could be suspicious until a police officer asked if he could talk to Andrew.

I was taken aback, because Andrew is non-verbal.  The ironic “conversation” went like this.

The police officer stepped out and asked, “Can I talk to you?”

I told him, “Are you talking to us?”

When he affirmed his interest in my brother and me, he asked, “Where do you live?”

I confirmed our street name, as he maintained his watchful eye over Andrew, who stood in his place, but kept turning his head around, as if to say in his mind, “What the heck is going on?”  I decided to watch the officer’s next move.

He looked at my brother, raised his hands around his head but did not touch him and asked, “Is he…?”

“He has special needs,” I replied.

The officer smiled and walked away, but not without some extra courtesy.

I recalled that when Andrew is in his world with Louie, he moves as he sees his fit. Well, this polite cop entered that world. When Andrew meets new people, he doesn’t know how to say, “Hi!”, but he knows how to shake hands. That is exactly what he and the officer did before he went back to his car.

I admit my heart stopped when the cop car approached us from behind, but it started beating normally, when the officer drove off.   My brother and I were literally frozen in moment of confusion, because unless this police offer knew what I meant by “special needs”, a completely different result may have taken place.

But it did not. I shook the officer’s hand and asked for his name.  Officer Mark greeted us goodbye and left us alone.

Autism is a world. That is not just the name of a 2004 documentary, but perfectly describes this experience. In Officer Mark’s world, a young man wearing a baseball cap and casual workout gear, flailing his arms, shaking his head while pulling a dog leash raised some signals.  In Andrew’s world, he was simply taking a walk. What happened, however, when their worlds came together, was not a clash, but an epiphany.

Andrew sensed he was not in trouble. Officer Mark knew Andrew was simply taking a walk. I knew that when there are more people like Mark who open their world to those like Andrew, a walk in the neighborhood is a bit easier for everybody.

“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to editors@autismspeaks.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.

Preventing Tragedy

This guest is post is by Phillip Hain, Executive Director, Autism Speaks Los Angeles Chapter.

Only upon reading further – about ¾ through the story – did I notice the statement that the man had autism and learning disabilities. My heart instantly sank. I felt horrible about my preconceived thoughts, and now worse because of the added circumstance. Reading the subsequent details doesn’t offer much else. The officers say they heard a noise and the victim was acting suspiciously. He quickly approached them and they claim he appeared to “pull something from his waistband,” according to a spokesperson for the police department. 

This occurred just past midnight so it was dark. I don’t think we’ll ever know the real facts. Is it fair to second-guess the officers who had to make a decision in one instant? But let’s pause for a moment and think – if the officers knew just a little bit more about autism, it’s possible the outcome may have been different. 

Autism Speaks developed the Autism Safety Project specifically for this purpose. It provides First Responders with information and guidelines for communicating with individuals with autism spectrum disorder in emergency situations. In addition, the Los Angeles Chapter of the Autism Society of America has developed a training program especially for the Los Angeles Police Department and implemented it over the last year, going around to their various stations to teach officers how to recognize autism. 

I have a 17-year-old son with autism. He is high functioning, somewhat independent, and likes walking around town.  But that doesn’t shield him from the possibility of something going wrong in a moment.  I shudder to think that he could have ended being the name in the paper.

The resources are there – but they need to be implemented to be effective.  We can only hope that increased training, awareness and knowledge of police, firefighters and all emergency personnel prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.

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