For many parents with children suffering from autism, the idea of their child interacting with law enforcement is a scary thought. Often times, law enforcement officials misunderstand the language and behavior of people with autism and this can result in serious consequences. In late May, Clifford Grevemberg, 18, who suffers from autism, was tasered and arrested for disorderly conduct by Georgia police while waiting to be picked up by a family member. The police report described Grevemberg as “staggering back and forth and appeared to be either intoxicated or on something.” By the end of the ordeal, Grevemberg was handcuffed and bleeding with a broken tooth.
A few days following this incident, another one that was similar in nature, occurred in Stafford, Virginia. Reginald Latson, 18, who is African-American and has Asperger’s disorder was waiting to be picked up outside of a library when police received a call about a “suspicious male, possibly in possession of a gun.” According to the police report, Latson attacked and assaulted the deputy and he was eventually charged with assault and battery. No gun was ever found, and as the details of this case emerge, many question the basis for the arrest and charges. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means its symptoms span a range of behaviors and tendencies. There are some constants that are seen across the board—repetitive movements, poor eye contact, social awkwardness, and sensitivity to lights and noise. These behaviors and others can be misinterpreted as bizarre, defiant and even disrespectful. For law enforcement who may not be aware of or as familiar with the disorder, disaster can occur.
As parents, the idea of seeing your child in the custody of police is heartbreaking. Many professionals and advocates in the special needs community are searching for ways to help protect their child or teen and guidance on what to do if something of this nature were to occur. One person who is on the forefront of this movement is Dennis Debbaudt, author of Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals. He has held autism training sessions for law enforcement over the last 15 years; the idea is to stop the misunderstanding before it occurs. With the help of people like Debbaudt and other advocates, government officials and legal professionals, we can do our part to lessen the likelihood of incidents like this occurring.