Autistic Adults and the Police

(An Essay by Lindsay Weekes.)

 

This page discusses my own experiences in Melbourne, Australia. It's not intended to replace or in any way supplement Dennis Debbaudt's website at http://www.autismriskmanagement.com which covers this topic in greater detail. I originally wrote this essay for autistic adults. (Oh,and while I remember: outside North America, Lindsay is a male name.)

I grew up in a Melbourne suburb called Brighton where my father was a part-time magistrate. That's what we call judges who preside over courts that deal with small-time matters. The Brighton court was normally in session only on Monday mornings, to deal with the weekend crop of drunk drivers, brawlers, speeders and so on. If police needed a special sitting, for example to set bail in midweek for an alleged offender, all they had to do was walk across the street from the police station to the Town Hall, where my father worked. It took about two minutes for court to be in session; my father had only to walk to the courthouse behind the Town Hall building.

Victoria Police Ford, around 1964

My father had cordial relations with the police and, by extension, so did I. Sergeant Jack Ford, officer-in-charge at the Brighton police station, lived just a few houses from us. I saw him nearly every day, liked him and was happy to wave to him as I went past his house on my bike. Or past the police station on my bike. Wherever. His daughter Sue went to Firbank, a private Brighton school. Even though she was a couple of years older, I'd usually stop and chat to her whenever our paths crossed.

My father died when I was 13. As a gesture of respect, Jack Ford detailed two of his constables, who had been bricklayers before joining the police, to build us a fence at the front of our property. We were never wealthy. Now, with my father gone, even less wealthy. Soon, courtesy of Victoria Police, we had a very solid, beautiful brick fence which endures and doesn't seem to have aged at all.

For many years until around 1963, Victoria Police drove Studebaker Larks which closely resembled the 1964 Ford on the left. They were great cars, with a V8 burble you could almost dance to. The police had modified theirs, boring out the cylinders so that the cars were not only powerful but very fast. There wasn't much on the road that could match their performance. If, while driving, you turned the ignition off and then back on again very quickly, these cars would backfire with a deafening crack. I was out talking to the guys who were building our fence when some of their colleagues drove past and backfired their car for a joke. The fencebuilders nearly jumped out of their skin, while I didn't react. I react very quickly if someone touches me, or lunges at me, or throws (or pretends to throw) something at me but I don't react to sudden loud noise. Not outwardly. For a couple of seconds I experience what I can best describe as a series of distortion waves. But they don't show on the surface.

So there's these policemen, laughing and embarrassed about being frightened half to death and there's me, not laughing, just standing there. The policemen take offence at this. I'm supposed to have been scared and laughing with them but I can't fake it quickly. Can't fake it at all. They didn't look at me again after that, didn't acknowledge me when I spoke to them.

It's important to remember that police react typically for NTs and they have heightened aggression. Society gives them quite a lot of power.

After that, Jack Ford doesn't greet me quite so cordially. At fifteen, no longer a child, I'm taking a lot of unauthorised time off school. Most of the time, I'm too depressed to go. As a small child, I'd sometimes hide in my parents' wardrobe (closet) if the world got too much. I'd stay there for hours. It was calm, smelled rather nice and was dark; a great place to zone out.

At 15, I'm too big for the wardrobe. The only space in the house big enough to hide in is under my mother's bed. I'm sometimes there all day, from the time she leaves in the morning until it's time for my sister to get home from school. Who can I talk to about this? No-one at all. There were no school counsellors back then. In the days before Medicare a psychiatrist would have cost a fortune. Would he have done any more than mouth platitudes? I didn't think so. Every once in a while Jack Ford comes around. I hear him knocking and knocking. His police instinct tells him someone's at home but I don't answer the door. He always goes away if I'm patient.

On weekends, I'm out and about as usual. I see Jack Ford mowing his lawn and wave. He waves back. But his daughter tells me she's not allowed to speak to me any more. Jack Ford could check with my school and have me charged with truancy, but doesn't. Is he being kind to me? My mother? Or does he just scent trouble and is he ducking?

In Victoria, you can't get a driver's licence until you turn 18. What do 16yos do? Ride bikes and catch public transport like any other kid. It's around 10pm, midweek during the school holidays. My friend Danny and I are riding our bikes to his home in Armadale, about 10km away. As always, when we reach the Nepean Highway we ride off the road onto the footpath that borders Dendy Park. At the time, pushbikes were considered to be road vehicles and not allowed to be ridden on footpaths. All the kids ride on this footpath though, because they consider riding on the Nepean Highway something close to suicide. In 1963, it's two lanes of almost continuous high-speed traffic. Pedestrians get killed all the time just crossing it.

We're about halfway past Dendy Park when a police van draws level with us and a voice shouts: "Hey you kids, get off the footpath!". We do. We ride straight into the park and along the grass. The voice obviously meant us to get off the footpath onto the highway and is now displeased. We're smart-arses to those police, no doubt. So they drive their van up over the kerb, across the footpath, across the flower beds and into the park after us. Danny and I yell as one: "Split up!" and we peel off in opposite directions. They go after Danny because as well as yelling, he made a peel-off gesture so he's become the "ringleader" and they've caught him.

Once before, when I was ten, I abandoned someone I liked to his fate and I've always regretted it. By now, I've got a coping strategy for a similar situation and it's this: never do that again. I go back to Danny and the police. "What's your name? Where do you live? What's your date of birth? Where were you coming from? Where are you going to? Why were you riding your bikes on the footpath?" I answer the questions mechanically and the policeman says: "Aren't you (my father's name) son?" I say I am. He says I should know better, brought up the way I was, to break the law. Danny tells him that obeying the law in this case is a good way to commit suicide. He receives a backhander across the face for that. I tell him that I and all the local kids do exactly the same and have been doing it for over ten years now. My turn for a backhander. He takes the valves out of our tyres and tells us to walk home. We can get the valves back tomorrow at the Brighton police station. In a straight line across the park, we're only 300 metres from my place. I tell Danny I've got dozens of extra valves so we walk our bikes back, put in new valves, pump up our tyres and Danny stays with me instead.

This is par for the course in 1963. I don't feel in any way victimised or singled out and I write it off to experience.

Just about a year later, a Saturday, around 6pm. I've been in the State Library, in the CBD, all afternoon reading a small book called Markings by the late Dag Hammarskjöld, former Swedish diplomat and Secretary-General of the United Nations. It was another year before that book became available in stores. I've just left my nearest train station, Patterson, with an armload of notes and a blank expression because I'm thinking only about the contents of this book. I wander past the Patterson milk bar (if you're in North America, think of a White Hen Pantry or some such) and vaguely note the police van parked in front.

I cross Patterson Road and see that the bank in front of me has a notice advising its holiday opening hours. I stop to read it. It's been put there by bank staff for that very purpose. I hate making trips to this bank only to find it closed. There's a squeal of tyres, doors slam, I'm grabbed and turned around and my notes go flying into the gutter. Two policemen have hold of me, the very two who have just emerged from the milk bar with their food, seen me reading the notice, jumped into their van, made a U turn, exited their van and are now behaving badly.

They ask me twenty questions before I've finished giving them my name. They're pretending that they think I was casing the bank for a robbery. I try to explain about reading the notice but it doesn't come out well, I'm shutting down and my speech is going fast. I'm backhanded several times and hurled into the gutter on top of my notes. The police are working themselves into a rage because they're not getting standard responses and therefore I must be a smart-arse. In the gutter they kick me a few times and what they're saying is just babble to me by now. A parting kick and they're off.

I get home, my mother takes one look at me and for the first time I can remember gets murderously angry. She's on the phone to Jack Ford almost instantly and she's screaming. Jack is there in what seems to be just seconds. By now, he knows that I'm kinda different, to say the least. He's heard the word autistic mentioned in reference to me. He promises to investigate. Yep, they were his men and he doesn't know where to look. The next day he comes around and apologises to me, assuring me that those guys would be dealt with and I believe him. (Back then there was no ombudsman, no complaints tribunal, no internal affairs branch, no real recourse at all. So an apology was the best anyone could hope for.)

Let's move forward in time to 1995. A police senior sergeant has an autistic son. When I first meet him, his son is five. He's a worried man, and what's worrying him is the thought of what might happen to his son when he's 15, out and about, doing whatever his thing might be and, perhaps, encountering the police. He's only too aware of how badly such an encounter might go. His son is now 16. What's changed?

This policeman has not stood still. There's now a disability register and if police encounter non-standard responses they're supposed to check it. The police are, in general, much more autism aware. Much more disability aware, in fact. And society is changing as it always does. For a long time now, female police have been increasing in number. It's not unusual to see all-female police teams on the road. Victoria has had a female Chief Commissioner for several years. For people with disabilties, this is a great development. Women listen. They don't talk at you, they don't moralise and roll over you verbally, they tend much less to prejudge. They listen and then they act. They're more aware of difference and have a greater range of emotional response to it. They don't just shuffle their feet and look down, wishing they were somewhere else.

A modern Victoria Police pursuit car.

Not long ago I spent a few years living in the rural city of Ballarat. One way and another, I had quite a lot to do with Victoria Police and was impressed by their level of professionalism. They've come a long way in just a few years. But they're not perfect. Among them they still have a few officers of the old school, the ones who think in stereotypes and who automatically give preference to one group in the community at the expense of another. These people need to go, and go fast.

In general, the old adage autism and the police don't mix still holds true. It's better if we have nothing to do with them. But we do, don't we? If you're reading this, maybe you drive and will one day get a ticket. Or be stopped and checked for alcohol or drug consumption. Maybe we'll be burgled or assaulted. Let's hope not. But over the course of an adult lifetime there's a very good chance we'll all talk to the police at some time. And when that time comes, it's much better for us to deal with female police. And we're entitled to advocacy in all situations. Don't ever forget that.

   

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