By Carol S. Weinman, Esq., C.A.S., International Speaker and Author
“My son really is a good boy. And, now, he thinks he’s bad.” These were the words of a mom who recently witnessed her adult son – with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – in handcuffs. It got me thinking even more about the unspoken fallout of an ASD individual’s encounter with police. Boys with ASD experience “hits” to their self esteem at a very early age. They feel different, sometimes odd, and often ostracized and misunderstood. Highly vulnerable from a young age, they are more susceptible to the after effects of being arrested, handcuffed or fingerprinted. They transition to adulthood with a compromised sense of self-esteem and self-concept. The impact of being arrested and handcuffed cannot be minimized. It is traumatic for anyone at any age, but for an individual with ASD, it can be even more devastating.
What makes these boys and men even more susceptible to the long-term emotional scarring is their inability to understand why this is happening. Because of a neurological difference, they most often do not comprehend that what they did is wrong and may not even grasp why they behaved as they did. Their interaction with police and finding themselves in handcuffs are interpreted as, “I did something bad….. I am bad.”
I raise this issue because I believe we need to start having the conversation. Fortunately, in my work in the world of autism and criminal arrests, I have been successful in avoiding prosecutions and convictions. While that is rewarding for me and the clients I serve, these “defendants” still pay a very high psychological price in the aftermath of such a traumatizing occurrence.
As always, prevention is preferable to repairing the damage. And, the first step is awareness. If we can become more cognizant of the effect of police encounters on these individuals’ psyches, then we can begin to address the concern both before and after. Public knowledge of the increasing numbers of arrests for those with ASD is still relatively new, which allows room for a more hopeful future. The good news is that law enforcement officers and the criminal justice system are open to learning and collaborating to improve this undesirable phase for many ASD boys transitioning to adulthood.
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