Last month I participated in a panel discussion on the topic of Autism Safety at a conference hosted by a local autism organization.
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 I whole heartedly agree that this is a key safety issues for autistic people, I find the ways that autism parent communities and neurotypical-led organizations discuss this issue tend to be highly problematic: most notably, that they ignore the racial issues at the heart of the danger. 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 themselves are indicators of racial erasure. I think anyone who pauses for even one minutes to consider how those solutions might work for a black or brown autistic person could see how deeply flawed they are. How would a black family in America be affected by being in an autism registry or GPS service with their local police department? What kinds of issues might arise for a population that is already at risk of being racially profiled? What is the likelihood they would sign up for this voluntarily, given the downsides? Can you imagine a black autistic parent, or a Latinx immigrant family, being willing to be on such a registry?
And where to even begin with pushing more compliance training on non-white autistics. How well has compliance worked for black Americans historically in this country, when it comes to keeping them safe in police interactions? Eric Garner said it best: I can’t breathe.
My presentation on Autism Safety to my local community was cut short, as the moderator verbally nudged me to move on from the topic of safety – they mostly wanted me to list my credentials as a “self-advocate” and then sit down.
What I wanted to tell them is that NT parent/expert control of autistic people, stripping us of autonomy, and ramping up compliance training, all compound the most serious dangers we face in our lives. When parents, teachers, and autism “experts” have tunnel vision that focuses on autism itself as our main threat, they actively endanger us. I understand why they are reluctant to look at the real safety issues we face, because many of those issues are coming from them.
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.