The police pointed a taser at my 12-year-old autistic son

For most law-abiding citizens, making a call to the police does not warrant hesitation or doubt – after all, they are there to protect and assist those in need. 

But when you are autistic and in distress, a police response can be anything but helpful. 

In the UK we read accounts from autistic Americans and their families, detailing the terrifying levels of brutality experienced when seeking assistance from the US police.

Only this year, in Utah, an autistic 13-year-old boy was shot by officers who had been called by his mother to help assist with getting him mental health treatment.

As an autistic woman, such news reports have always terrified me but I naively assumed that the police response to autistic distress was fundamentally different here in the UK. For one, our community police teams are both visible and approachable. 

However, when bystanders called the police to our home because my son was in autistic crisis, my trust in them rapidly vanished.

My son, like many autistic people, prefers his life to be ordered – he isn’t a fan of sudden change – and so when a pair of shoes were no longer fitting him in a symmetrical way, he rapidly became very distressed.

This was noisy and, I am assuming, uncomfortable for our neighbours to hear, but my son wasn’t misbehaving. He wasn’t committing any crime, nor placing anyone in danger.

He was an 11-year-old boy in autistic distress – overwhelmed, frightened, anxious and unable to regulate these feelings. And most crucially, he was being supported in an appropriate way by me, his mother.

Whether a call to the police was necessary or not, their response should have been proportionate to the incident and, in my opinion, it was not.

Four police officers restrained my son and placed him in handcuffs. Having heightened sensitivity to touch, this increased my son’s discomfort to intolerable levels. Without freedom of movement, his primary mechanism of self-regulation – pacing and rocking – was restricted.

As his mother, watching this situation unfold was terrifying. I was powerless to help my son and I knew what was happening would feel tortuous for him.

When I requested his handcuffs be removed, the responding officer was so horrified that she demanded I contact his dad to see if he could ‘control him’ any better.

Being a competent and informed mother, I refused to do so. This did not go in our favour and my son was dragged away kicking, while screaming: ‘Help me Mummy, help me Mummy, I’m being kidnapped.’ He was then put into an awaiting van and taken to hospital. 

I don’t think you need to be a mother to understand that watching a child experience such brutality tears you apart from inside. It is heartbreakingly traumatic to witness.

My son was dragged away kicking while screaming: ‘Help me Mummy, help me Mummy, I’m being kidnapped’

On a separate occasion (and almost a year after the previous incident), police officers forced entry into our home and aimed tasers at him.

Again, neighbours had alerted the police to my son’s autistic distress but this time the police were fully informed that we were an autistic household, prior to attending. I had asked for this information to be attached to our home address in the hope that any future emergency service response would be informed with regards to autism best practice.

Unfortunately, this did not filter through to their manner of approach. Upon arrival they immediately threatened to break down our door should my son not begin to ‘calm down’ immediately.

This served only to push my son into further panic, which in turn led to multiple officers forcing through our front door and aiming multiple tasers at my son.

All the while they were shouting demands that would have been impossible for him, in such a heightened state, to both process and act upon. I had to place myself in-between my child and their tasers in order to communicate to my son what he needed to do.

This simple action gave my son the thinking space necessary to engage in rational thought and he managed to retreat to his safe space.

Later that day my son told me that he had thought he was going to be shot and killed on the spot. He had no ability to apply rational thought because he was in heightened crisis, and at that moment in time he was unable to differentiate between a taser and a gun.

Such trauma has left my son fearful of leaving our home. He is startled by every person that opens our gate. If there is a knock at the door, he arms himself with a saucepan in an act of self-defence. This is no easy way to live.

As a family, we have been advised by counsellors to ‘normalise the experience’, in order to move on. But nothing about having a taser aimed at you is ‘normal’. And what does such an experience teach a child – that the only way to gain control of another is through brute force?

I discussed this with police officers at the time who were keen to point out that they had attempted to speak with my son first, and had indeed issued verbal warnings to step away from the door and to calm down.

But the most basic of autism awareness training explains how an autistic person has communication differences – talking and negotiation is only effective if there is a shared understanding. And when an autistic person is experiencing overload, very little communication is going to be effective.

A 2016 study found that the autism community in England and Wales were ‘largely dissatisfied with their experience of the police’.

The National Autistic Society have a guide for police officers in which they advise against the use of handcuffs or transfer to mental health facilities. So, is more education and training needed to improve the handling of these situations?

Some may see this as a clear solution – however, other members of the autistic community believe this will only empower the police to continue in their brutality as they will be informed in how to intentionally trigger and exacerbate autistic distress. I personally feel that this is a rather extreme position but it does raise fundamental questions regarding police remit. 

Each time the police attended our home I clearly and calmly articulated that my son is autistic and the quickest way for him to regain calmness himself is to be given space and to be left alone.

Still, they continued to approach with force, effectively heightening the situation. In both instances, the police did not respond to my recommendations for how best to approach my son and in turn acted against my wishes as a parent.

I am left with no trust in police ability to offer appropriate assistance. Autistic distress is neither a criminal nor mental health matter. This leaves the much bigger question of which agency, if any, should be responsible for delivering respectful crisis support to the autistic community? 

Being too scared to ask for support, because there is no right place to obtain support from, is a very lonely place to be.

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