Punished For Being Autistic? (Autism/Asperger’s and the Police)


My last blog post talked about Hiding My Asperger’s Quirks.  It talked about how difficult it is for people like me to “fit in” with a world that is mainly designed for neurotypical thinkers. Back in May, I graduated from high school. While I do really look forward to experiencing college life, there are many worries I have when it comes to being a young adult with an Autistic Spectrum Diagnosis. Every parent fears for their child, and the story I am going to describe in this post fully explains why I fear for my safety and mental health.

The story is about a young man named Reginald “Neli” Latson from the small town of Statford, Virginia. The story begins on the morning of Monday, May 24, 2010. Neli was sitting in the grass outside the local library, waiting for it to open for the day. A nearby school crossing guard called the police, and reported a “suspicious black male who may have a gun.” Neli became tired of waiting for the library to open, so he decided to leave the library. He was then approached by a school resources officer, Deputy Thomas Calvary, and he was immediately searched for the suspected gun. Absolutely no weapons of any kind were found in his possession.  The officer then asked Neli for his name, but he refused to give it to him. This was because he perceived the officer was trying to harass him. So, he refused and tried to get away and stated he committed no crime. Deputy Calvary then grabbed him from behind and tried to arrest him without reading his Miranda rights or calling for backup. Neli resisted arrest and both he and the officer were “subsequently injured”.

Neli was held for 11 days without bail at the Rappahonack Reigonal Jail. The police allowed his school counselor to relay messages to Lisa Alexander (his mother). Ms. Alexander was only allowed one visit during that time period. During that particular visit, Neli was “in a catatonic state.” He was unable to speak! Later on, police interrogaters reported he was “nonresponsive” and “disturbed”. The judge ordered him to be transferred into a mental institution for 30 days of treatment.

Following the 30 days, Neli was then sent back to prison for another year. For eight months he has spent time in torturous isolation. 

Here is a YouTube video where Neli himself describes the harassment he received during interrogation.

Here is a YouTube video where a woman described the incident, the racial harassment and similar cases of injustice that have occurred at the same prison

The trial for the incident lasted three days, and Neli was found guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer. The judge tried to push for him to serve 10 and 1/2 years in prison. His sentence was lowered. The judge decided to give Neli two years in prison instead of 10 1/2. Neli’s only defense was the he was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, the same diagnosis which I have lived with for my entire life. I have no desire to explain what Asperger’s is because I have already done so in my past 78 blog posts.

So, what are the thoughts that have gone through your mind after hearing about this story? I am going to say this right now, my blood boils every time I hear about it. I am a firm believer that law enforcement officials nationwide need to be informed about Autism and Asperger’s. Until I heard about the situation with Neli, I never had any idea this lack of knowledge was becoming a problem. I want to challenge my point of view with another story about Autism. This story is very different from Neli’s.

In order for a law enforcement officer to understand Autistic, there is one thing they must address first and foremost. Dr. Temple Granin pointed out in her TED lecture that Autism is a continuum of traits. You have the “severely Autistic” non verbal types, the geeky/nerdy kids who have lots of Asperger’s quirks, the kids who can’t function without assistance and the kids who are incredibly gifted. This story dates back to the year 2008. Adam Race was thirteen years old, weighed over 235 pounds and diagnosed with severe Autism. He and his family resided in Bertha Minesota and attended a Roman Catholic church named The Church of Saint Joseph. The church filed a restraining order which banned the family from attending Sunday Mass. Despite being ordered not to attend, they showed up anyway. The reason for the restraining order was because he demonstrated behavior that caused a “growing concern for the safety of parishioners.” 

Now, you may be asking me a big question.  “What has Adam possibly done to cause this restraining order?”  The reports from The Rev. Daniel Walz stated he would hastily bolt out of his pew and nearly knock over elderly parishioners in the process. He has struck children in mass. He sometimes spat and urinated. His family tries to restrain him, but it causes him to fight it. He assaulted a girl and pulled her onto his lap. On top of this, he ran into the parking lot, went inside two vehicles and revved their engines during Easter Mass. Walz also stated he would demonstrate self injurious behaviors, such as hitting himself in the head. 

A controversy immediately ensued when mother Carol Race decided to get the press involved. Some people say the church’s actions were too harsh, while others say they should have gone with the restraining order. I happen to be in the second vote, because it seems to me that Carol was the problem. The liturgy of the Roman Catholic church is very orderly. However, unexpected situations still can occur that can cause the child to become upset. Here are some quotes from the press release. 

Most of the time, Adam can walk through a crowd of people in a patient and gentle way. And because our family leaves the church service early, there should not be anyone during these times to “bolt through.” 

The worst of Adam’s behaviors resulted from lack of accommadations or cooperative discussions. Case in point: The car-revving incident. Normally our family left church before the closing song, which would allow three minutes before the congregation left. During Lent, Fr. Walz ommited the closing song and failed to ask the congregation to wait to leave until our family had left first. 

Carol said they would normally sit in the back of the church or in the crying room, therefore it would be easy for them to get up and leave the church before the recessional hymn. For any church leader, there is a lot to remember when it comes to preparing for worship. It is next to impossible for the priest to do everything by himself. While that is what acolytes and lay readers are for, what happens if they don’t show up for mass? The worship leader must perform tasks that acolytes and lay readers are assigned (lighting candles, opening the leaders book to the correct page, reciting scripture readings, setting up communion, leading communion, greeting parishioners before and after mass.)

The church has offered for the family to sit in the crying room and watch mass on a television feed. They also offered meditation through a local Protestant minister. Because Carol refused these options, so they decided to go through with the restraining order which banned him from mass. It seems to me that Carol is a “my way or the highway” kind of a parent, the kind I really can’t stand. None of her statements in the press release are about the safety and welfare of the other parishioners. Every parent needs to teach their child limits, whether they are Autistic or not. Here are some “what if” questions I have if Adam actually did injure or kill somebody. 

What if the police actually were called to have him restrained, and the officer had a “chip on his shoulder” and decided to use a taser to restrain him? (This actually did happen to one Autistic child. Read the article!

I must say that both the church and Carol could and should have handled the situation in a much more civil manner. While I don’t know this whole story, I think the church most certainly should have communicated with the family more. They should have tried to figure out ways to “enter his mind”, similar to how Elaine Hall did with her son Neal. I also believe the national news outlets should not have been contacted. Carol was just trying to grab attention to herself because the situation was not going her way.

So, the burning question is “How can we inform law enforcement about Autism and Asperger’s?” This is still a difficult question to answer, because the stories I shared about Neli and Adam are different. If you have a child with Asperger’s, I recommend the parent/guardian contacts all local emergency services (police, fire, ambulance) and use these questions as a guideline.

Where do you live? (Make sure you provide your street address and directions to your house. If you live in an apartment, be sure to provide the name of the apartment and room number as well.)

What does your child look like? (Provide a copy of photo identification.)

How can they reach you? (work phone, home phone, cell phone, email address, street address, pager)

Does your child have health issues? (sensory, medical and dietary restrictions) 

Where does your child like to “hang out” in their spare time? (Provide specific information. For example, if they like to hang out at Best Buy and buy video games, make sure you say the gaming department.) 

Does your child drive? (Provide specific description of the vehicle(s), license plate number and drivers license number.) 

What unusual behaviors does my child exhibit? Why might it cause authorities to think it is suspicious? 

What are your child’s favorite things? (Toys, objects, foods or discussion topics.) 

How does my child interact with others? (Sign langue, picture boards, written words)

What potentially dangerous places are in your community? “Enter their mind” and think about why they would be interested in being there. (Be sure to describe what the danger is. Examples: water/electrical/gas sources, elevated areas.) 

Make sure you provide some this information to neighbors and friends who you trust. Now, here are some pointers for your Asperger’s child if they are approached by a law enforcement officer.

1.) Do not attempt to flee the scene. Most police encounters happen unexpectedly, this might cause you to feel uncomfortable. This will cause the officer to think you committed a crime. 

2.) Refrain from making sudden movements. This will also cause the officer to think you are suspicious. 

3.) Let the officer know you are Autistic. (If nonverbal, use sign simple language)

4.) Ask for permission before you go into a glove compartment, pants or coat pocket. Tell the officer what you are getting out, then show it to them. (This will ensure the officer you are not attempting to grab a weapon.) 

5.) Always carry an Autism information card anytime you go out in public. 

6.) If your child is arrested, make sure they appeal for confirmation of the Miranda warning.  

7.) Carry contact information of an advocacy group, trusted friend or trusted neighbor anytime you go out in public. 

I truly hope you enjoyed reading my blog post. I encourage you to visit the website avoiceforneli.com and sign the petition to release him from prison. This is one thing that will help raise awareness about Asperger’s and Autism.

Have a great week!

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6 thoughts on “Punished For Being Autistic? (Autism/Asperger’s and the Police)

  1. This in some ways reminds me of incidents involving people of other races or cultures. When people don’t follow so called social norms because they are different, those of the” Norm” , become incensed or perhaps frightened due to ignorance, i.e. lack of knowlege and totally over react. Looks like we need a big, big movement of education to inform others. Thanks for a wonderful post.

  2. I believe this was primarily, if not totally, a case of racism. Check history-any mental health issue involved when people or police deal in general with “minorities” is only viewed as a further threat. Historically, blacks with mental health problems have been more frequently jailed or forced into hospitals than whites. Sorry, but I don’t believe acknowledging Autistic spectrum individuals would help much, because if you have someone who is racist dealing with an individual to begin with, any other factors are just lumped into the category of “dangerous.” Very sad and ugly to admit, but true. A person viewed as more suspicious because of his/her “race” will only have mental “diversity”, no matter WHAT it is, stacked against them, too. I’m a researcher of history and this same type of thing also happened in my family. Regardless of any bias, however, police are generally paranoid and badly trained all round. And when are we ALL going to stop pandering to this notion of “race” anyway? It is the most ignorant and destructive and false idea to come down the pike since the belief that the earth is flat! If you “whites” want to show just how tolerant you are, get rid of ALL use of “race” categorization. It can be done, but many of you really don’t care to. It’s given you all a rallying point for superiority for far too long, first as believing yourselves superior, now for thinking yourselves on the moral high ground for being “accepting” of “African-Americans.” Give it up!!!

  3. It is my belief today that my father had Aspergers Disorder, a psychologists, who I know very well, says that I have it.
    It is my belief, and this is very difficult for anyone to swallow, however every since the first week of my life, I have been discriminated against, for it was believed, that I would have Aspergers, since my father had it, even it, did not have a name back them.
    Lets not talk about the present, however between 1987 and 2004 or even later, I was peppered, with usually “Pepperball”, sometimes with pepperspray, in my sleep every night, this was done by federal law enforcement. The people who enforce anti-discrimination laws.
    Anyone who has Aspergers must constantly be on guard for police harassment.

  4. I’ve had similar experiences with the police. They even planted a weapon on me after beating me. Fortunately it only ended with a good behavior bond. I did nothing wrong, nor did I lay a hand on the officer.

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