Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Autism? Just a Bunch of Spoiled Children!"

This was originally run on August 3rd, 2010. The story of this officer, and the quote that was used in the title, happened one year ago today; the day before I started full-time at TouchPoint. That being so, I felt it was best to run this story again as a reminder of the mission we all should have in increasing the awareness and understanding of those who are on the autism spectrum.

Did that quote, the one that is the title of this entry, make you angry? It made me angry when I heard it, but it also threw me off of my game when I heard it because I was just about to start a presentation.

My presentation was to a group of police officers and one of the officers near the front of the room, when they saw my opening slide to my PowerPoint presentation, blurted out, "Autism? Just a bunch of spoiled children!"

I was hurt, in a way, because my entire presentation is based on getting the officers to understand some of the struggles faced by those on the spectrum and their families. The look on this officer's face truly scared me.  As I started my presentation he kept shaking his head at me like I was telling the biggest fib of all time.

In my 40+ presentations to police officers he was the only one that, I feel, didn't grasp the fact that autism is a challenge and that it exists. There have been others that have had that same attitude before I started my presentation, but by the end they were asking more questions of the topic and wanted more information on how to help a person with autism that is in need.

Can I blame the officers for having a closed mind before the presentation? Not really, because a lot of the tactics officers use are opposite of what works for people with autism. There is a real disconnect because of this, and furthermore, there is so much misinformation about autism in society.  On top of all this, no two people with autism are the same and the end result is a real need for officers to get autism training.

I just heard a story about an 18 year old that has Asperger Syndrome and was pulled over by the police. The officer approached the car and tapped on the window. The driver looked at the officer and did nothing. The officer tapped with more force and still the driver did not respond. By this time the officer was already irked so he screamed, "Sir, roll down your window now!" The young man was confused by this anger and said, "Why didn't you tell me to?"

The story continues and the officer was already on the last page of anger management book when he asked the driver, "Can I see your license?"

The driver looked at the officer like he was speaking a foreign language and said, "No, you can't see my license."

Between rolling down the window and being asked to show his license, the driver had mentioned the fact that he had Asperger's Syndrome. The officer didn't know what that meant which led to the climax of this story.

The officer once again asked, "Sir, can I see your license now!" The driver, who now was really confused, said, "You couldn't see it before and you still can't see it." And with that the officer arrested the individual for disobeying an officer or something like that and was hauled off to the station.

The driver's mother came to the station and I believe that other officers at the station understood what happened. When the mother asked the driver, "Why didn't you show the officer your license?" the driver said, "He asked if he could see it, but he couldn't see it because it was in my wallet in my back pocket." I don't think there were any charges filed.

Simple education of officers could prevent a traumatic event like the one I just described. If officers aren't educated it is hard to blame them because how could they understand that things can be taken literally. Police officers have a very stressful job and are accustomed to liars and thugs who will attempt to push every button the officer has.  When they come across a person on the spectrum that says the wrong things or doesn't understand their questions or commands they rely on the typical police procedure without empathy towards the person. Again, they have a stressful job and I was lucky enough to experience a day with an officer and you can read HERE

My presentation goes deeper than just alerting officers to the potential literalness of the spectrum, but also that each person with autism can be a complete opposite of the next. I give them the signs of autism and also a first hand account of what sensory overload feels like.

I am still angry with myself that I wasn't able to get through to the officer who provided the title for this post. I have about 800 other officers who were a success story; they got it. But for each officer that I failed to reach, that could be one officer who does the wrong thing and a person on the spectrum may experience a traumatic experience, or worse.

The need is there. The numbers for autism are going up at an alarming rate and police officers need to know what they may come across. If you are in the state of Missouri and are interested in a presentation for your local police department, they can schedule a presentation by contacting TouchPoint Autism Services at 314-432-6200.


  1. Aaron - that's a great article and presentation. I never realized that those issues existed but the examples you give really drive home the point. Great job.

  2. Wow...that's horrible. I can be cynical, but that's just beyond words...that officer has a lot to learn in this life. Too bad one of the other officer's didn't slap him on the back of the head.

  3. My 18 year old son with Aspergers has been arrested twice this year. I am sure it is because he didn't respond to the officers in a manner they deemed appropriate.We go to court in September and I am praying the charges are dropped. Thanks for taking the time to educate law enforcement. I wish you were in Indiana!


  4. It seems that every new person I meet has a person with autism in their lives. That this officer would have such thoughts is beyond me. I wonder who his "person" is and how his reaction is received?

    I have learned from your blog that to tell you that having only one person react this way is pretty good odds won't make you feel any better. You are doing a great job, Aaron.

  5. I once told my mum after seeing someone getting arrested 'I think if I'd ever be arrested, I'd immediatly be needing psychological help. Just the fact that I got arrested will be punishment enough for me. I have a high sense of justice, so for me being told off by some high authority already makes me feel terrible about myself. But of course the police will want to punish me in some way and they'll be angry at me and treat me as some kind of criminal. I don't think I'll every survive that."

    Just the idea of getting arrested... *shivers*
    (for people who don't know yet: I have Aspergers Syndrome)