C got a new nerf water gun today. Being an excited 9 year old, he did what any 9 year old boy with or without autism does. He took it a few houses down the street to show his friends. I could write an entire post about my wonderment at his ability to walk down the street and back and all of the work that went into making that a reality for him, but that isn’t what this particular blog is about.
Instead, it is about the fact that after he left, I started to think about a child who was shot by the police because he was carrying a toy gun in a park. I wondered if I was worried about C carrying the watergun around, but then I soon realized that I wasn’t concerned over the neon orange water blaster. What I was really forcing myself to think about was the scenario of what C would do if he were stopped by the police for any reason.
I can see the squad car with flashing lights, maybe the sirens are still on, and the police officer is telling C to stop for some reason or another. I then see one of three things happening. C tries to walk to the police officer thinking that he or she is like the officer who comes every month to check his Project Lifesaver bracelet, and it is viewed as an aggressive movement. Or maybe C immediately drops to the ground in the turtle huddle that he does when the world has become too overwhelming, and the behavior is viewed as an uncooperative movement. Or maybe C takes off running because he is absolutely terrified of “mad” voices, and he is suddenly viewed as fleeing. None of these scenarios end well in my mind. If I’m honest, I can imagine the phone call or the knock on the door where someone is telling me one of my worst nightmares has come true. I could go on because the details are that vivid in my mind, but that really isn’t what this blog is about.
I need to be really, really clear here—this blog isn’t about the police either. They don’t know my giggle monster or how beautiful his soul is. They don’t know he has autism or sensory issues. They just see a tall kid who could be a danger or a threat, and he isn’t listening to what they are telling him to do.
This is about my realization that we as parents can’t take for granted that C knows how to interact with the police in a dangerous situation any more than he knew how to ask a question or express an emotion. Those interactions all require an ability to read and quickly interpret verbal and nonverbal cues in a fast moving environment. Realistically, that isn’t a skill that naturally comes to a literal thinker. And if we are really going to do our jobs as parents trying to prepare C for the world, then we need to teach him how to react in those situations.
When the older kids were younger, we played the stop game. Initially, we played the game with Ry when we were going hiking in the mountains when bears had the potential to be active. Later we played the game before going to the Badlands where we knew there would be a lot of poisonous snakes and we needed to know that the kids could respond to a frantic NO or STOP if necessary. I think we’ll do something similar and maybe we’ll even ask a few of our local police officers if they will practice the game with us.
I’m haunted by the images that my mind created for me tonight, and I’m sure I will revisit those images and that mental knock on the door for days, weeks, even months to come. I also wonder what else we are forgetting to teach him about the world, and I worry that we don’t have enough time to fully prepare him for everything he will face in life. I wonder who will be there to think of these things when we are gone. I wonder if the world will change its definition of normal enough that these concerns won’t even be an issue in another decade or two. I wonder….I wonder so, so, so many more things than I can possibly articulate.
Of course maybe all the wonderings is my brain’s way of reminding me that we can’t make assumptions; we can’t assume skills or behaviors any more than we could when C was younger. Autism is growing up with him and the challenges don’t stop. They just change, and it is our job to prepare him to the best of our ability. I don’t even know if our efforts will be successful or if somehow we will inadvertently create a new phobia or fear of the police that we will have to overcome, but I also know that we can’t do nothing because the images, the sounds, the feelings in my heart and brain are too raw…too real…too painful to just ignore.