I have nothing but respect for our police and first responders (with the exception of the members of the police department in this story). Over the years that I lived and worked in this un-named California city, I watched the police racially profile, bully, push people to the ground while in handcuffs, laugh about it, and otherwise mistreat the citizens who pay their salaries. Including autistic people.
This story happened back when I lived in California. At the time I was — mentally — in a really bad place. For those who don’t know, depression and autism go hand-in-hand. Now I take medication for depression and, though I still deal with the problem, the depression is not to the degree it was back then.
But first, a little more background: When my daughter was five years old, I got full physical and legal custody because her mom is bi-polar and she was more out of our daughter’s life than in. Today, my daughter is 20 and a junior in college. There were times when my depression got so bad I did think about suicide but I knew I would never go through with it because of the vow I had made:
I would never leave my daughter alone.
Also, at the time of this story, I shared office space with my brother. One day I truly hit rock-bottom. I knew I wanted to kill myself (though I also knew I would never go through with it). But my brother knew what I was thinking about.
There was a knock at the door. I looked out the window and saw a plethora of firemen and police standing on the sidewalk. The sight sent me into an instant panic attack the likes of which I had never had before.
Rather than open the door, I went to my brother’s office and asked what they were doing here. He told me he was concerned about me and had called them to check on me. Now, I was pissed.
“Well, there’s at least a dozen of them and you can tell them to get the f—k out of here!”
Instead, my brother opened the door and the next thing I knew there were 14 people in my tiny 10x10 office. As they all crammed their way in, my panic grew until I was having a hard time focusing or even breathing.
I told the police I was autistic and that the number of people in my office was overwhelming. The officer in charge said he didn’t care about that and that nobody was going anywhere. I became scared of what would happen to me. My language became very colorful as I told the police to get out and leave me alone! They refused. Worse, every time I mentioned the word autistic, someone snickered or flat-out laughed.
This city’s police department has a history of abusing people. Knowing that — combined with the sheer number of officers now in my personal space — made me want to crawl into a ball in the corner and cry.
Back in the 1970s, officers from this department hanged an African-American man in their custody. I wanted these people nowhere near me! I kept repeating that I was autistic and asking some of the officers and firemen to step outside. I heard several of them laugh. Was terrorizing autistic people a sport to these people?
Finally, I found myself begging the lead officer to send everyone other than himself and one fireman outside. I said they could leave the door open and stay just outside the door. I said if they did so it would help me calm down and I would answer any questions they had.
In response, the lead officer grabbed my arm and slammed me face-first into the concrete floor. The next thing I knew, five officers were on top of me. The fattest one planted his knee — and all his weight — on my skull and another put his knee on my neck. The officer who cuffed me tightened the cuffs to the point the circulation was cut off from my hands. I said so and the officer then laughed and tightened the cuffs even more. As I lay on the floor, I heard my brother telling the police that this was not what they had promised they would do. I heard them tell my brother to back off and be quiet.
The paramedics then strapped me onto a gurney. As they were doing so, they asked how I was feeling. I told them I needed the handcuffs loosened a bit. The paramedics asked the police do to so but were told no. By the time I arrived at the hospital, both of my hands were purple. During all of this, several officers tried asking me questions. By now, my answers with either “F—k you!” or “Blow me!” I also told them if they loosened the cuffs I would consider answering their questions. By now, I wasn’t earning any brownie points but I didn’t care. They began telling me what an asshole I was.
“You have no respect for me as a human being or an autistic person!” I remember responding and continued, “It’s not my responsibility to help you do your job!” I also remember saying, “There’s probably some old lady across town you could be shaking down right now!”
Every time I said the words autism or autistic, the police just laughed at me.
The ambulance took me to the local hospital for a 72-hour observation. The “observation” was a complete joke. I lay in a bed in the ER with a guard outside my door for 23 hours as the staff waited for a bed in the psych ward to open up. When I was finally moved to the ward, I sat for another 22 hours before I saw a doctor. When he finally saw me, he quickly determined that I wasn’t suicidal. Less than an hour later, I was in an Uber car on the way to my office to get my car and go home.
The next Monday I tried to get in touch with the police chief but he refused to talk to me. Unwilling to let the incident go, I kept working my way down the chain of command until I got a lieutenant willing to talk to me. After I sent a press release to every news outlet in the LA and Orange County region (as well as every city councilmen and person above the chief) the department finally broke and scheduled a meeting with me.
The meeting — which consisted of the chief, the lieutenant, a captain, my brother and myself — was a joke. The chief spent the entire 45-minutes playing on his phone. The captain was sympathetic because he had an autistic son but no one would admit fault and they saw no need to change their policies. I reiterated that I wasn’t there to talk about what happened to me as much as I was there to talk about policy changes so that what had happened to me would never happen to anyone else in the city. I might as well have been talking to a wall.
When we finished, the chief finally opened his mouth and asked if I had anything else to say.
“Yeah,” I replied. “When I walked into this room I thought you were a huge asshole.”
“And now?” he asked.
“Now what?” I replied. “You played on your phone the whole time. Why would anything change?”
On the drive back to my office, I came to two conclusions:
First, with my daughter in college and my being a writer who could work from home, I had been thinking of moving out of Southern California. This incident sealed the deal and that afternoon I began researching new places to live harder than I ever had before.
Second, I now knew what I’d been searching for in my life. I had been coaching youth hockey — sometimes up to five teams at a time — and it was burning me out. But I had always wanted to do something that would make a difference in others’ lives. Then and there, I knew it was my job to advocate for high-functioning autistic adults like myself.
You have to understand that we — high-functioning autistics — are socially awkward. We don’t like confrontation. We don’t like dealing with people who freak us out. But when I see others being pushed around, I step in and take up the fight for them. It’s taken me awhile to figure out how to be an advocate (and I’m still working out the details) but this blog and website are a start.
The book I’m working on is also a start. I am writing about growing up in a time before there was any understanding or diagnosis of high-functioning autistic people.
I hope this story helps you. Other than my brother, I have never told this experience to anyone. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is something I had to share.
Now I want to hear from you. Have you had an experience where you were made to feel awful because of your autism? Have people in authority laughed at you or dismissed you? This is a forum for all of us. Please share with your friends and leave your comments.
I pray that nothing like this ever happens to you, but if it does, know you are not alone!
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