The Lose Lose of Autism & Law Enforcement

Somehow in some way we need to address the lose lose of Autism and Law Enforcement.

Recently, Wood TV reported the story of a 19 year old with autism being restrained, handcuffed, and placed in custody.

John Bessinger took his son, Johnathan, to the courthouse downtown Grand Rapids for a guardianship hearing Wednesday. Before they could make it past the metal detectors, Johnathan began to have a panic attack, his father said.

Wood TV, Grand Rapids, Michigan

My first question is why do we insist those with special needs children bring their kids to courthouses?  Shouldn’t they be offered exceptions similar to the education system, which has the IDEA Act (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Special education and related services should be designed to meet the unique learning needs of eligible children with disabilities, preschool through age 21.


Laws like this exist, because conventional classrooms are not equipped to meet the needs of special needs children.  Why do we think conventional law enforcement can handle these situations, when conventional classrooms cannot?    This may not be a fair comparison, but it makes a simple point–accommodations should be made to insure autism families, and law enforcement experience success when they meet.

Without accommodations here is what we get…

As the 19-year-old went in, a deputy felt threatened and reacted, according to Kent County Undersheriff Jon Hess. Hess said a gesture from Johnathan made the deputy fear for his safety.

Wood TV, Grand Rapids, Michigan

 How can we expect law enforcement officers under the stress of difficult security challenges to manage people with autism?  How can we expect those with autism to navigate the fear and conflict laden environment of the courthouse?

Given the circumstances, it would be easy to blame, but the real solution is understanding these are lose lose situations for everyone.  In this case, the lose lose situation lead to…

“The one sheriff put his arm against him and threw him down,” Bessinger said. “The other two got on and piled on top of him — knee to the back, put his arms to his back and handcuffed him.”

Wood TV, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Who knows if the father and son will ever recover from this traumatic moment?  Who knows if the officers will ever be able to overcome the emotional burden of restraining a special needs kid?

If cities don’t address serious situations like these, the conflict will become more pronounced.  In London an autistic teenager was awarded almost 50,000 dollars for a similar situation.  While I am confident the award was just, this would appear to complicate rather than improve the relationships between law enforcement and autism families.

These are painful stories, which I do not want to see repeated.   Each of us should become advocates for accommodations, which will make the interaction between law enforcement and autism more successful.  This is exactly what Bill Burke of Ventura County did for his community, when he organized a training presentation for law enforcement and autism families.  He could see the potential for tragedy as described by this quote…

Law enforcement officers might respond to calls that involve a person with autism who others might think is unresponsive, intoxicated or aggressive, Burke said. Officers might also have to deal with people with variations of the disability who are victims or who witnessed a crime.

Presentations Offer Insight,  Ventura Star

We can and must bring an end to these lose lose circumstances, in which autism families and law enforcement experience sad or tragic conflicts.   We need to make the relationship between autism families and law enforcement happy meetings with happy endings.