During October, images of Halloween pop up everywhere – advertisements for spooky costumes, lawns with decorations as we drive through our neighborhoods, haunted forests. This makes me think about fear.
As a parent of a teenager with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), bipolar disorder, ADHD, and anxiety, I have many fears. Besides the usual fears of him not fitting in and struggling in school, one of my biggest fears has always been that my son will have an unpleasant interaction with the police. Although many people may think this fear seems irrational and overblown, it is actually rational. As Bryce gets older and wants more independence, I will not always be around to protect him and know that he is safe. I cannot always guarantee that Bryce will be as stable as he is now, that he will always take his medicine, or that he will always remember his coping skills.
Spoiler alert! This fear of mine was reflected in season two of Atypical, a current show on Netflix. The main character is out in the middle of the night alone. A police officer mistakes his coping skill (reciting penguin names to himself) as him being intoxicated. He does not respond to commands and the encounter goes badly.
Today, my fears were somewhat assuaged. Today, I went to Coffee with a Cop. It was the BEST cup of coffee that I ever had. I mean, it was an okay cup of coffee – it wasn’t a Salted Caramel Mocha with Whipped Cream or anything like that, just a regular cup of coffee with cream. But, I met Officer Laurie Reyes of the Montgomery County Police Department. Officer Reyes heads up the MCPD Autism/Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities/Alzheimer’s Outreach Program, which provides a “layered approach” to safety and awareness through education, outreach, empowerment, follow up, and response.
I spoke with Officer Reyes and other officers that were at the coffee. I told her about my fears and she completely understood. She assured me that I was doing the right thing by talking to her, and she gave me information to help calm my fears.
She told me that EVERY police officer in Montgomery County is trained on how to work with individuals with ASD and other disabilities. In fact, there was a young man at the coffee who was struggling, and I saw Officer Reyes work with him and calm him down in a respectful manner.
More importantly, I learned that the Montgomery County Police Officers train individuals with ASD and other disabilities on what to do IF and WHEN they are encountered by the police. Officer Reyes told me that they go to schools and talk to young adults and teach them what to do in these situations.
Officer Reyes talked to me about what to do if, or when, my biggest fear comes true. She told me there were seven things that my son needed to know. I was empowered on how to teach my son how to protect himself, but I thought – seven things sounds like a lot. Bryce forgets to brush his teeth AND put deodorant on even though he is reminded every day (and by a sign on the mirror). Seven things seem like a lot to remember, especially if Bryce is out of control and angry, and that is why he is being confronted by a police officer.
So, Officer Reyes told me – just tell him to keep his hands in front of him and say, “I have autism.” Loudly. Wow. That makes sense I thought. The officers are trained. They will change their response and attitude. I can do that. I can tell Bryce that. Hands in front and say, “I have autism.” The other five things can come later.
So yesterday afternoon when Bryce and I were walking the dogs, we talked about it. I told him about my coffee and Officer Reyes. He said he knew to listen to police officers. I told him that he needed to put his hands in front and say, “I have autism.” At first, he laughed. But then he understood.
At dinner, we practiced again. He said it. I told him to say it louder. He did. He screamed it. I was so proud. I thought, many children with autism are non-verbal. But they can have their assisted devices talk for them. It can work too.
I feel better now. My fears are assuaged. The outreach program has many tips on how to keep your children safe, not just from my fear. It is an amazing program; many other counties have this, too. Sheppard Pratt has even partnered with Baltimore County police to offer this program in some of its special education schools; read about it in Heal magazine. You can get more information about the Montgomery County program at montgomerycountymd.gov/lifesaver or by emailing Officer Reyes at Laurie.Reyes@montgomerycountymd.gov.
Tracy Greenberg is a mental health writer and advocate; in addition to her work for Sheppard Pratt, she volunteers for NAMI and the Crisis Text Line. Tracy is also a swim mom, mother, and wife, and is passionate about yoga, nature, and the Florida Gators. Follow along with Tracy at her blog.