What Autism Safety Really Means

ableism, Autism, Disability, Education, Infographics, Writing

The two hottest takes when it comes to “Autism Safety” – in the “autism community,” that is – always seem to be wandering/elopement and police interactions.

Elopement or wandering refer to the problem of autistic children (not always children, but almost always) who run off unattended, often leaving an enclosed space like their home or school. And, as a parent myself, I do understand this worry – to an extent. Naturally the idea of one’s child getting lost and/or getting into dangerous situations takes one’s breath away to even imagine.

But in the grand scheme of an autistic life, how pressing is this issue really? Parent-led organizations sometimes run scary stories about the dangers of elopement. Recent studies have shown that about half of autistic children elope at least once, and half of those elope long enough to cause serious concern. That does sound worrying, but let’s keep this number in mind and I’ll return to it in a moment: 25% of autistic children have significant elopement incidents. Other factors to keep in mind: most of those children are nonverbal, and elopement peaks at age 5.

The other hot topic in safety is about police interactions. And while this is a key safety issue for autistic people, often the ways that autism parent communities and neurotypical-led organizations discuss this issue are problematic, particularly when they neglect the intersection of systemic racism with disability rights. Skirting the autism-race interaction in conversations about police and first responders not only makes our conversations about safety incomplete, it also makes our proposed solutions severely inadequate at best.

What the parent community’s hot safety takes amount to tends to be a clamor for more neurotypical (NT) control over autistic people. Wandering? Police interaction? For NT parents and experts, the solutions are about GPS tracking devices, autism registrations, and more compliance training for autistics.

These solutions by their nature elide the realities of autistic and otherwise disabled people of color. What kinds of issues might arise for a population that is already at risk of being racially profiled? Given the risks, how can we assure people – is it even ethical to assure people? – who already feel unsafe or unable to trust law enforcement to protect them that they should entrust police and other first responders not to use their disability status against them in some harmful way. And that’s to say nothing of the ethical repugnance of pushing even more compliance training upon black and brown folks who historically have been shown how no amount of compliance will protect them from racist abuse.

Neurotypical parent/expert control of autistic people that strips autistic people (of any age) of autonomy and ramps up compliance training, in fact makes autistic people less safe in the long run. When parents, teachers, and autism “experts” have tunnel vision that focuses on autism itself as a threat to autistic people, rather than taking a careful accounting of how ableism affects disabled people – and how other forms of oppression intersect with ableism to compound the harm done – they actively endanger autistic people.

I’ll remind you now of the figure above that told us 25% of autistic children have seriously concerning elopement incidents, peaking at age 5.

Now let me tell you about what Autism Safety really means:

Abuse and Violence
  • Disabled children are 3.5 times more likely to be abused or neglected than non-disabled children
  • Disabled people are 3 times more likely to be victims of serious crime than non-disabled people
  •  Exact figures are unknown, but numerous studies have estimated that the number of people killed in police interactions who were disabled is at least 50%, and likely much higher as these calculations under-count people with psychiatric disabilities
  • Black people are nearly 3 times as likely to be killed by police than white people; therefore, we MUST include racial issues in addressing autism safety with law enforcement
Psychological Effects
  • 70% of autistic people also have a psychiatric disability such as depression or anxiety
  • 30-50% of autistic people have reported having suicidal thoughts or attempts
Bullying
  • 60-80% of autistic students report being bullied at school
  • 40% of parents of autistic students report their children were bullied
  • 22% of those who were bullied report being bullied all the time”
Restraint & Seclusion
  • While only 12% of public school students are disabled (covered by IDEA), 75% of students restrained at school are disabled and 58% of students secluded and isolated at school are disabled.
  • 25% of arrests and referrals to police are disabled students – that means a disabled student is twice as likely to be arrested for a disciplinary incident at school.
  • Federal data shows public schools reported 163,000 incidents of students being restrained in one school year.
  • 40% of students restrained at school are autistic
  • 50% of students secluded/isolated at school are autistic
  • Of the disabled student population, only 19% are black, but they make up 36% of those who are restrained and secluded – this means that among disabled students, black children are twice as likely to be restrained and secluded
  • 7,600 of the incidents of restraint involved mechanical restraints (i.e. not restrained merely with school staff’s hands/arms)
  • Students were secluded in scream rooms” 104,000 times in that school year
  • 20 public school students died while being restrained at school between 1988-2008
  • In many states (including mine), there are no legal restrictions on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools

Many of these risks to autistic children are much more prevalent and dangerous than the risk of elopement, and many continue to affect autistic people throughout our lives – as our high rates of depression and anxiety show. And yet, these are the dangers that are rarely discussed by parents and autism organizations. These risks do not seem to inspire as many panel discussions, safety curricula, training sessions, and special safety programs. Perhaps because, by and large, they require change on the parts of the everyone else but the autistic child.

Even more crucially, the parent/expert safety programs that are most popular – the GPS trackers, registries, and compliance training – actually put autistic people at greater risk to our real threats: abuse, victimization, discrimination, isolation, and psychological trauma. Trackers, registries, and compliance make us LESS SAFE. Worst of all, they will have the strongest negative effects on the segment of the autistic population that is already the most vulnerable – you know, the ones we never talk about? – those of us who are not white.

Of course we can’t wait around for mainstream culture to protect us, so here are some safety tips you can really use. And please see my Autism Safety PDF for more information and sources for all of the above statistics.

SAFETY TIPS
  • For Autistic People:
    • learn how to recognize and report abuse
    • learn what to do if you or someone you know is feeling suicidal
    • learn how to avoid interactions with law enforcement
    • advocate for community change that lessens the frequency of interactions with LE, and the risks of violence during interactions with LE
    • learn what to do if you get lost or need help in public spaces
  • For Families: 
    • learn to recognize and respond to signs of abuse, neglect, and bullying
    • learn strategies to reduce the risk of LE involvement and violence
    • learn to recognize and respond when someone you love feels suicidal
    • teach your loved one survival skills, including a safety plan for getting lost 
  • extra tip: medical ID bracelets are safer than ID cards or registries!

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