Content warning: police violence, ableism, racism
On September 4, a 13-year-old autistic boy named Linden Cameron of Salt Lake City, Utah was experiencing a mental health crisis due to “bad separation anxiety” from his mother going to work for the first time in more than a year. According to The Guardian, his mother, Golda Barton, called 911 to request for a crisis intervention team. Instead, police officers arrived and shot Cameron several times.
Fortunately, Cameron survived. However, his struggles with the police are not isolated. They reflect a larger crisis of care in which disabled people experience police violence rather than receive the help they deserve. Disabled people are more susceptible to police brutality than able-bodied individuals are, yet the role of disability receives far less attention than the role of race. In order to fight police violence and achieve liberation from systemic oppression, social justice activists must start actively centering disabled voices more and work to end discrimination against disabled people.
According to an interview with Alex Vitale, the author of the book The End of Policing, society burdens police officers by asking them to handle every social problem. This expectation has dangerous implications for disabled people, particularly if they are neurodiverse, meaning they have neurological differences. Since I am neither a psychologist nor do I personally know Linden Cameron, I am not in a position to determine the exact extent to which Cameron’s autism influenced the breakdown that led to his fateful encounter with the police. However, as an autistic individual who also has an autistic brother myself, I do know that many autistic people could and do have similar experiences with law enforcement.
For example, a Black autistic man named Matthew Rushin was sentenced to fifty years in prison because of a non-fatal car accident. Police officers and prosecutors argued that Rushin was attempting to kill himself, while Rushin’s parents disagreed, arguing that he only lost control of his car. According to a police officer, when one of the drivers of the cars hit in the accident yelled, “Are you fucking trying to kill yourself? Are you trying to kill us?” Rushin answered, “I was trying to killing myself.”
While this might serve as compelling evidence for suicidal motives if Rushin were neurotypical, his response may have been influenced by autistic traits. “Repeating words and phrases are how autistic people process language, especially when under stress,” Rushin’s parents wrote in an email exchange with writer and mental health reform advocate Pete Earley.
From my experiences with my brother, I can attest to this. For example, if I ask my brother, “Do you want ice cream? Yes or no?” he will say no. However, if I say, “No or yes?” he will say yes. He will only repeat the last word of the question, a phenomenon called echolalia.
Other components of autism can put an individual at risk for police brutality. As an autistic person, I struggle with making eye contact, and I do it very inconsistently. The reason for this is that eye contact is sometimes extremely uncomfortable for me, even if I am talking to family members, friends, or my boyfriend. Despite this, others may perceive lack of eye contact as a sign of dishonesty. If an autistic individual fails to make eye contact while interacting with police officers, they may then conclude that the person is a threat. At the very least, the police might arrest the person; at the worst, they might kill them.
Even though the police may not discriminate on the basis of my skin color, as I am a light skinned Asian woman, I am afraid that if I am in a situation with the police, they will misinterpret my lack of eye contact.
Sensory overload and difficulty adapting to change, which my brother and I have as well, are also aspects of autism that can result in less-than-favorable interactions with the police. Unfamiliar situations, such as changes in routine or new surroundings, may overwhelm autistic people and trigger sensory overload. In turn, this might produce a meltdown, which others might perceive as violent behavior.
It’s likely that these two aspects played a part in Cameron’s encounter with the police. Cameron was struggling to adapt to a change, his mother going to work for the first time in a long time, which caused him to break down. If I were in Cameron’s situation, it would definitely upset me too, as I have cried over seemingly insignificant changes. Add the police—who are not trained to handle neurodivergence, but to enact violence, which overloads the senses—and you create an autistic person’s nightmare.
Thus, although I admittedly don’t know Cameron as much as his mother, Barton, I was skeptical when she asked, “Why didn’t they tase him? Why didn’t they shoot him with a rubber bullet? You are big police officers with massive amounts of resources. Come on. Give me a break.” One of the reasons for my skepticism is that there is often a chasm between parents of autistic children and autistic individuals themselves. Many parents do not act in the best interests of their autistic children, as seen in autistic adults’ distrust of Autism Speaks, an organization of parents, doctors, and scientists. In addition, aside from the fact that tasers and rubber bullets can still kill someone, albeit with lower likelihoods, they are still tools of violence, and they can overwhelm an autistic person’s senses.
“[When] we turn a problem over to the police to manage, there will be violence, because those are ultimately the tools that they are most equipped to utilize: handcuffs, threats, guns, arrests,” Vitale said in the interview. “That’s what really is at the root of policing.”
If violence is at the root of policing, then policing is not the answer to solving problems that involve not just autistic people, but disabled people as a whole. Society perceives us as a threat to its order because we are different; we require different structures, different ways of communication, different resources. When we don’t have adequate accommodations or resources to help us understand or cope with a situation, we may fight back, call for help, or try to help ourselves. A disabled person’s call for help or attempt at self-help, as seen in Linden Cameron’s case, may be interpreted as a threat because it appears violent. And the police will respond to threats with more violence.
If we want to end police brutality, then, social justice activists must acknowledge that disability threatens the order of Western society. Not only should they acknowledge it, but they should also shed light on disabled people’s experiences with the police and work to end systemic ableism so we are no longer seen as a disruption. It is my hope that by writing this, I can bring more attention to our struggles and help achieve justice for all disabled people.
Luciénne Reyes PZ ‘24 is from Los Angeles, California. She plans to major in psychology and minor in music on the premed track. In January 2020, she started listening to Danzón No. 2 and continues to listen to that piece almost every day.