Trauma in Fiction and Real Life: In Defense of “The Catcher in the Rye”

holden caulfield ask

[Anonymous Tumblr ask reading: “Holden Caulfield was a whiny self-centered teenager and he didn’t deserve an entire book”]

The above ask was sent to a Tumblr user, who responded with thoughts similar to my own. Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a traumatized teenager. Catcher is the story of what trauma can look like. It is the story of what it looks like when adults fail youth.

Holden was a vulnerable teenager experiencing so much trauma. He had so much grief of losing his brother, one of the only caring people in his life. He had to survive a toxic school environment where his peers killed themselves and he was implied to be enduring sexual abuse. He narrates his story from an institution in California following the breakdown.

Catcher is the story of what trauma can look like. The book wasn’t the story of “lol angst.” To dismiss that? Means letting adults and parents and educators off the hook to do good. To do right. To maybe support youth in working through trauma and edging closer to adulthood. Catcher is the story of a traumatized teenager. Some adults actively contributed to his trauma. And all of them let him fall through the cracks until the breaking point.

Stop letting traumatized teenagers just fall through the cracks. Stop assuming teenagers are just supposed to be miserable. Remember that just because trauma isn’t immediately visible doesn’t mean it is not serious. Treat pain, whether trauma-related or not, with respect – not as bothersome angst. Talking about counseling options can be helpful, but forcing them into it is not a solution. Training teachers to be better mentors and making sure guidance counselors remain in schools (and improving upon guidance counseling) are useful as well.

.  .  .

I read Catcher in high school, the same time I started dealing with fallout from trauma. I could see in Holden myself. I read and glimpsed what could have happened to me if things had been a little different. I read as the adults in his life failed him, as some in mine didn’t. I was a frightened and hurting teenager. Who didn’t know that it was trauma to even talk about. Who didn’t have any coping mechanisms. Who thus did not remotely know how to cope. Who did not know how to react, to process, to keep my pain at bay from myself and others. I had a support network of sorts. Holden Caulfield did not.

Is that how you want to view traumatized teenagers? Are you going to even recognize the possibility of trauma? Is that how you’re going to react to teenagers’ pain? Even if they aren’t strictly experiencing the effects of trauma? Is it? If you think he is just a whiny self-centered teenager and other iterations of that ilk, I know that this is what you would have thought of me in high school.

If this is how you view traumatized teenagers and teenagers in general – no, they’re probably not going to trust you. If your response to teenagers’ pain is “lol angst,” – especially if you work with teenagers – you are contributing to the problem. If you think Holden Caulfield’s pain is “lol angst,” you are contributing to the problem. The book is not just Holden’s story.

Catcher was once my story. Catcher is the story of so many people who are traumatized and trying to reach adulthood. Catcher is the story of what trauma can look like.

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vignettes from a psychiatric history on #worldbipolarday

I can tell you about all the time I have spent among the thyme
thinking of the dark Thames that river I’ve seen
both in TV shows and up close
its dark waters inviting me to sink in its good-bye waves and
ink its darkness on my arms and there is a river dell I see
when I close my eyes and wonder what Virginia Woolf felt in her river
a wolf in me is ready to jump through (s)now and fall through the ice.
Sometimes it’s frenetic energy with a voice of reason that
falls flatter than the paper thin hospital gown that I wore,
highlighter butterflies on my wrists.
I can (out)pace the world, wield
every word as a razor sharper than
the knives I wanted to use for an off label use.
I can be higher than the hills I once wanted to die on
and still see the rivers from on high.

When I was a child, I loathed my psychiatrist. He made me take tests every time I visited him. He condescended to me. He diagnosed me with anxiety and ADHD (accurate) and denied that I was autistic (inaccurate). He told me to focus, focus, focus, also calm down. I ended up throwing child toys at him. He put me on Clonidine first, then more ADHD meds.

I later found out he is held in high regard in the area of ADHD.

Seven years ago, I went on a potent drug ostensibly as an adjunct for a depression diagnosis at age 16. I don’t know what the psychiatrist knew about being angry all the time at home and aggressive at school. The drug gave me uncontrollable urges to move, far different from merely wanting to stim. My mother called the psychiatrist to explain that I seemed to feel like a “Mexican jumping bean.” The doctor prescribed a muscle relaxant.  

I later learned the side effect was akathisia and could have been much worse.

When I told a psychiatrist years later that I was aggressive in high school, he nodded.  “Yes, that’s why they put you on it.” He was an autism specialist a second hospital found and seemed to agree with the decision to put me on it.  “Well, now that you’re not aggressive, we could probably take you off of it.” Besides the issue I had with medicating for compliance, I already had tried to go off it several times. . No psychiatrist ever told me there would be withdrawal, even with tapering, that would last for months.

Each time was so hellish from withdrawal that I asked for it again.

In college, one time, I objected to eating outside on the campus quad on the grass – some of my friends wanted to. They went anyway. I ditched dinner and left the dining hall, almost in tears. I sat near my dorm building. Another friend found me there and asked if I was okay. I wanted to lie, to keep pretending that my brain hadn’t been trying to kill me for the past several months, to talk in circles around my friend and the thoughts. Instead “I don’t want to exist anymore” burst out like Gusher fruit snacks breaking open. My friend took me to our dorm’s resident assistant, who got me an appointment with the campus psychiatrist  for the next day. She upped the dosages of the medications that hadn’t been working.

I pretended things were fine after that.

Fourteen months since college graduation. I’d been at a new job seven months. Six months since the first psych hospitalization. One month since the second. There were still people who didn’t know about them. My mother, who was in town, mentioned I had been published. We were at a lunch table with relatives. But the publication was on my experience with those hospitalizations. My cousin asked if they could read it and I realized a hole had been dug, pushing the conversation in a dangerous direction. “It’s something I don’t really want relatives to read,” I said. I pushed dirt back in the hole the same way I used to pat down the earth around flowers and herbs in the garden, alone.

I pushed dirt back in the hole the way I once imagined filling my early grave.


The featured image for this post is a neurodiversity necklace from Spacerobot Studio for a reason. The need for neurodiversity and mental health movements to intersect is vital.

Not every person with a mental health disability has to see it through the neurodiversity framing, but we should be at times working together to push back against the narratives that frame autistic people, people with intellectual or cognitive disabilities, people with mental health disabilities, as inherently Other. Ableism manifests in different ways toward disabilities that have been categorized in different ways. But the end message is of Other.

As we approach Autism Acceptance Month, we should take care to remember that neurodiversity values all kinds of minds.

A history of progressive ableism that remains today

For clarity: I know that other progressive activists do great work. This is an anti-ableism post. It should be interpreted in this manner rather than as anti-progressive. 

Introduction

Too often, progressives use ableism to accomplish their goals. I do not mean just using some words that many disabled people consider offensive.  I mean things like advocating for ableist gun reform laws. I also mean things like attributing people’s worst traits to mental health disabilities, like people do with Trump.

In the 20th century, progressives gained momentum. Progressives of this time were not the same as they are today, but the ableism is still around.  Then, the cause to rally around was eugenics. I am providing eugenics as a historical example of progressive ableism – and will point out how it still lurks in undertows of thought.

Historical example: The early 20th century and Progressive Era eugenics

Eugenics was a movement that gained some level of popularity in the early 20th century (and still continues in modern forms today). Supporters of eugenics wanted to prevent the procreation of the “unfit” and promote “better breeding.” Eugenics was popular with progressives, including reformers and activists, of the early 20th century.

The Eugenics Record Office (ERO), intended to serve as a hub for American eugenics research, was financed at one point by the Carnegie Institution. Teddy Roosevelt once wrote a letter to eugenicist Charles Davenport of the ERO about “degenerates” that said:

Farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally… Someday we will realize that the prime duty… of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.

A reformer included Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist known for being the first woman to run for president (in 1872). Another was inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Several groups of feminist reformers, including the National League of Women Voters, had eugenics-based legal reform as part of their goals.

Stop making me have to defend insidious people from ableism

Bigoted actions and words from Trump are the result of bigotry. And bigotry is not a mental health disability, though people with mental health disabilities can also be bigots. We are people and vary in thoughts and opinions. But I’d really like prominent progressive activists to acknowledge this and stop making the case for Trump being crazy. That way, people with mental health disabilities won’t face as much ableism. And I won’t have to keep defending insidious people from ableism. 

I defend even people I loathe from ableism because public figure he may be, but attributing bigotry to disability hurts all people with mental health disabilities. And I do it also because when progressives pull out the “But no sane person would do that!” or “Trump is crazy!” lines, this is what they are saying:

Only crazy people can be responsible for such vile acts.

It’s the line of thinking that mental health disability must be responsible for acts society can’t explain, acts society considers terrible. The unintentional undertones of this speak of eugenics to me. Eugenicists of the past posited that many people, especially marginalized people, had increased rates of poverty and crime due to mental and moral “deficits.”

Today, mental health is blamed for everything, from mass shootings to having a poor moral compass – and Donald Trump’s actions and bigotry. Right-wingers and the GOP are the party of eugenics themselves, for sure, and I find that loathsome. But progressives should stop blaming mental health as they oppose damaging policies and actions.  

Related Posts:

Rewriting the Narrative on Psych Ward Abuse in Journalism

Psych Ward Reviews gained a new feature in January 2017: a news article repository of staff-on-patient abuse in hospital psychiatric wards. It is an ongoing effort, both of searches and a morbid set of daily Google Alerts with phrases such as “psychiatric patient abuse.” As part of my search process, I have read over about two hundred articles so far.

One thing of note was that many of the articles on staff-on-patient abuse I found were not in major publications. They were in local news outlets or smaller magazines. And as I knew, there are many failures of psychiatric wards as a crisis care model. These failures can involve staff-on-patient abuse, suicides, ill-maintained facilities, and Medicaid fraud. My focus here is how journalists cover abuse and other failures.

Journalists do so with a few different lines of thought. Many fail to address issues that come with psychiatric wards as the main method of crisis care. These problems include taking away patients’ rights and ability to make decisions. Instead, they discuss issues such as funding and staffing shortages, and overcrowding and bed shortages. However, the reasons for psych ward abuse are power dynamics and ableism.

The system requires institutionalization in secured wards away from the public. Patients then lose their rights (available in theory). The power shifts to doctors and staff, who make decisions about a patient. Many hospitals seek patients for profit. These are settings prone to abuse. We must build a stronger network of community-based crisis care, including peer respite centers and support. There must be meaningful oversight and accountability for any community care providers.

But why don’t journalists talk about creating alternatives to psych wards? The reasoning by many journalists is that shortages result in increased abuse and neglect of patients by staff. They then describe hospital failures as inevitable because of these shortages. But the psych ward system’s issues are structural, rather than wholly solvable with money. Journalists could instead talk about these structural failures. They could do so in many ways.

They could cite the various works around abuse in institutional settings, and question power imbalances. They could push for more accountability and data on abuse rates in articles. They could interview former patients, to see what community options they want. Depending on the size of their platform, they could craft a new crisis care narrative for the broader public. The narrative would present alternatives entrenched in community-based, rights-affirming crisis care.

 

an exploration of autistic mad pride: part one

Introduction:

exploring the possibilities of neurodiversity, mental health, and autistic mad pride intersections

Recently, I found an article on Medium talking about schizophrenia fitting into neurodiversity, which got me thinking about how mental health more broadly fits into neurodiversity.

There are a lot of people I know with mental health disabilities/[a person’s preferred terminology] who dislike the idea of categorizing mental health things as neurodivergence, who feel that claiming mental health stuff as neurodivergence by definition means claiming it as an intrinsic part of the self that can’t be separated from oneself- and thus can’t be recovered from.

Currently I’ve been trying to think about and sort out the various models of mental health. For instance, the recovery model as it was conceptualized and formed after the period of large-scale, long-term institutionalization talked in part about recovering from the effects of society.

Then a lot of what “recovery” means, as I’ve seen it discussed, not just recovering from society’s effects, but primarily recovering from the effects of the mental health disability. I do know people with mental health disabilities who support this idea of recovery insofar that it means that they experience a significant reduction of symptoms along with developing coping strategies for symptoms.

However, as a disclaimer, I am not in fact trying to tell people that they cannot want to recover – experience a significant reduction in symptoms etc. – from their mental health disabilities.

But I think the recovery narrative, if pushed onto us by others, is, if not harmful, not exactly beneficial, because then it is not a choice. And a lot of times that’s the only narrative people are given.

And then a lot of autistics have co-occurring mental health disabilities, as I’ve discussed in this AACC presentation (PDF) and in this blog post series (the transcript for the AACC presentation is here as a PDF). And the autistic rights movement is rooted in neurodiversity and neurodivergence as identity. 

Then the questions I have are, that I will address in blog posts to come:

  • Part Two: Should mental health disabilities be fit under the category of neurodivergence as identity? (I can’t answer this for everyone, but I can answer it for myself and the way I see it).  
  • Part Three: Why haven’t the mad pride, mental health rights, and autistic rights movements intersected nearly as much (to my knowledge)?

 

2016 was lighting candles to mourn, but it was also carrying torches high

Year in Review: 2016

 Disability Rights, State of the Blogger, and Looking Ahead to 2017


  • Progress in 2016
    • #CripTheVote and disability on stage in U.S. politics
    • Disability Intersectionality Summit
    • Other moments in disability rights
  • State of the Blogger
    • Overview of the blogger’s 2016
    • Looking at, and valuing, disability and autistic history
    • Top five viewed posts and pages
    • Posts and pages that I liked but had fewer views
  • Looking Ahead
    • 2016 as an atypical year and the blogger’s plans for 2017
  • Conclusion

Progress 

#CripTheVote and disability on stage in U.S. politics

cripthevote-2

The logo of #CripTheVote, designed by Mike Mort. Blue text reads: #CripTheVote. There is graphic-design image of a voting ballot box with a ballot being dropped in. The ballot box has four blue squares, with line art in white of the standard wheelchair user disability icon, a brain, a pair of hands signing, and a person walking with a cane.

 

In 2016, Alice Wong (Disability Visibility Project, which chronicles disability stories), Andrew Pulrang (Disability Thinking blog and Center for Disability Rights), and Gregg Beratan started #CripTheVote, which is

a nonpartisan campaign to engage both voters and politicians in a productive discussion about disability issues in the United States, with the hope that Disability takes on greater prominence within the American political landscape. We hope to encourage people with disabilities to engage with the election at all levels from President on down, and to vote. We also want to hear candidates engage with disability policy issues and disabled people as much as possible.

They hosted Twitter chats, provided resources to disabled voters, and sparked a more organized engagement with politics from the disability community. It brought disability to the stage of politics in a major way, and enabled disabled people to have a central platform to organize around and put their resources and news.

Hillary Clinton released an autism plan and announced support of the Disability Integration Act after an autistic person stood up and asked if she supported it, leading to then-candidate Bernie Sanders co-sponsoring the bill. Then at the Democratic National Convention, a disabled person – disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza – took the stage. 2016 was the year, as Dylan Matthews writes, that disability rights broke through in national politics and disabled people became seen as a constituency by politicians.

Disability Intersectionality Summit

This year, the Disability Policy Consortium accepted proposals and held a Disability Intersectionality Summit. Presentations included topics on the intersections of being undocumented, being LGBTQ+, being a person of color, having mental health disabilities, on #DisabilityTooWhite – the hashtag and movement around the the disability community’s failure to represent racially diverse voices – and more. It was held in Boston on November 5.

Other moments in disability rights include: 

Disability rights groups struck a major blow to sheltered workshops.  Maryland voted to end subminimum wage. An investigation has finally opened into Illinois’ group homes for disabled people. A major Minnesota job provider for disabled people agreed to reform its hiring practices. Michigan banned non-emergency restraint and seclusion for disabled students. Georgia’s governor spoke in favor of Employment First policies for disabled people in Georgia.

The FDA finally put out a proposed rule for banning contingent electric shock devices like those used at the Judge Rotenberg Center. A major case involving a girl and her service dog went before the Supreme Court, and could open up an easier path for disabled students and their families to make schools comply with various laws. Litigation against Georgia’s substandard, segregated “education” system called GNETS for students with disabilities by the Department of Justice moved forward.


State of the Blogger

Overview of the blogger’s 2016

It was a hard year, like it was for many. I spent a serious amount of time dealing with badbrains. I wrote about the dehumanization of psychiatric wards here. I adopted a cat, though, so that makes up for a lot of things.

In terms of other advocacy, I continued volunteering for a non-profit’s social media that I have done since 2015. I also kept working for a non-profit that I been with since December and continued to blog. I began work on a great number of blogging projects like Autistic Community on Medium, and Welcome to the Autistic Community on Tumblr. I also ran Autistic History Month this year.

I also decided to turn my life experiences and history research into writings for publications and have published with the Establishment and the Deaf Poets Society on institutionalization and psychiatric wards, eugenics history and Buck v. Bell, and my experience with housing in college.

Looking at, and valuing, disabled and autistic history

In addition I have been working on my disability history/eugenics history blog more. I revamped my eugenics history 101 post into a downloadable PDF. and updated the resources list for that blog. I worry a lot about eugenics as a popular movement being back full force – it’s still here, in some areas and ways.

I also ran the Autistic History Month blog this year; a link compilation for autistic history can be found here and the posts for 2016 here. As Sarah Pripas-Kapit and I remarked in the closing post for Autistic History Month, history is essential to working for change today:

Thank you for furthering the knowledge of autistic history, and showing that we have a history. I am the first to admit that I don’t know everything about autistic history… Knowing history is vital, especially in this time of turmoil for many. Knowing autistic, and other disability history, is vital. If we don’t know how we organized and formed communities in the past, it’ll be harder to organize and sustain community now. -Kit Mead

It can be tempting to believe that history is an upwards trajectory, with things always getting better and better. Historians call this the “Whiggish view of history.”

Yet the Whiggish view of history oftentimes is not supported by evidence… While the past ten years has been a period of progress for the autistic community, I fear that we may be heading into a period of regression. As so many others have said, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is looking to be disastrous for people with disabilities. Like many of you, I am concerned about the months and years to come.

History tells us that civil rights are never a done deal. We have to work continually to uphold them.

But I hope that history can also provide hope. We are not the first generation of disabled people to face an ableist state and rollbacks of progress. By looking to the past, we can find a way forward during these turbulent times. -Sarah Pripas-Kapit

Top five viewed posts and pages

Posts and pages that I liked but had fewer views


Looking Ahead

2016 as an atypical year and the blogger’s plans for 2017 

Like s.e. smith says, 2016 was not normal and therefore, we should not allow ourselves to long for 2016 and make it a crowning glory of years that we look back to sometime in the middle of 2017 and go “well, things were so much better then!”

I really recommend reading the post by s.e. smith for how we cannot normalize 2016 because it wasn’t normal. We lost a lot in 2016 and our state of politics has steadily descended into even more chaos than usual. It’s not like I particularly look forward to the next several years’ potential events, but I will take a lot of pride in being alongside many other great activists, working to keep what progress we have made.

In 2017, I will continue to update my post-election resources page and continue my advocacy work, sharing and disseminating resources. I will continue to blog about the things that mattered before this election, and will blog on the things that matter more now because of the election.


Conclusion

2016 may have been holding candles up against a darkening sky in mourning, but it was also keeping candles lit and torches high against rain and darkness. We made a lot of progress in many different areas, and we also lost a lot – but we have faced dark times before, though never like this. We will work against the rapidly encroaching darkness of night to be lighthouses in the fog and darkness for many ships. Torches held high, we face 2017 and the years to come.

Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) Wrote Books and Had a Service Dog

carrie-fisher

[Image description: Three images related to Carrie Fisher. From left to right, Carrie Fisher wearing glasses and kneeling next to her service dog, the French Bulldog Gary, at a red carpet event; Carrie Fisher dressed in white as Princess Leia with her iconic hair buns, surrounded by Stormtroopers; and Carrie Fisher’s book Wishful Drinking, which has her name, the title, and an image of Carrie Fisher with hair buns facedown on a table with a martini glass in her hand.]

In high school, it was mentioned to me in passing by someone that Carrie Fisher, whom I knew as Princess Leia, had bipolar disorder.

I shrugged, and said, “Oh, okay.” She was still Princess Leia.

Sure, depressive episodes and generalized anxiety made up a majority of my days, a damp humid cloak like the Georgia summers I liked to wander down the streets in – alone. An autistic, depressed, anxious wreck, isolated and considered socially unacceptable. But Carrie Fisher was just Princess Leia, right?

I never thought she meant much to me besides her role in Star Wars until a short while ago. In college, I became invested in disability rights and later, after my first and second hospitalizations in a psych ward, mental health rights as well. Each discharge from the hospital read that I had major depressive disorder, not bipolar disorder. Each hospital had only seen me for suicidality. They didn’t see the times I felt higher than the hills I once wanted to die on, and faster than the too-fast DC Metro trains. I find the Metro a relatable metaphor. I too sometimes go too fast, experience frequent malfunctions, and occasionally derail.

But I find her more than a relatable metaphor. Carrie Fisher was a bipolar person who dealt with substance abuse issues. She was often considered socially unacceptable. She openly spoke about her mental health disability, and substance abuse issues (which were in part an attempt to keep her manic episodes in check). She was open about her dog Gary’s role as a service animal and took him to public events. And she was also the actress who played Princess Leia, a mother, an author, and a script doctor who edited scripts.

She was Princess Leia, and she was also an outspoken mental health advocate.

I owe her a lot.

For talking about about everything in the open. For being Princess Leia but also someone who employed a great number of coping strategies for her mental health, and talked about them. For sometimes being considered socially unacceptable.

For showing me that she, Carrie Fisher – Princess Leia – was as outspoken in real life as she was on screen. For showing me that it’s possible to be vocal about personal struggles and what you don’t like – and what is good – about your brain and yourself.

I Wanted to Believe (+ mental health resources)

I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe this country could do this. But we didn’t, so I want to say, now: Hold each other up, hold each other, we will do our damndest to make sure as many of us as possible make it. Please don’t kill yourselves. I know how painful it is to watch over half the country vote, in essence, for (at the least, an effort at) the total destruction of human rights here. I know what it’s like to want to die. I know what it’s like to be close to it. But please don’t. Hold each other up. Hold each other. Please try to survive. Find any reason you can. Remember that your existence is defiance.

Please stay alive.

***

Here are some resources, I originally created them for a support group I’m part of – they are mostly taken from my mental health resources page. Some of them are specific to certain identities, like gender or racial identities.

***

Other Blog Posts on Moving Forward

 

On #WorldMentalHealthDay

In much the same way I am tired of awareness for autism, I am tired of mental health awareness. I understand that autism is different from mental health disabilities, that there are also many autistic people with mental health disabilities who dislike autism awareness but don’t mind mental health awareness. I am not one of them.

When I hear you talk about awareness for mental health disabilities, when you say, “This is a serious condition affecting this many people,” or “this many people have a mental illness!” or “we need to focus on access to care,” I hear, much like many autistics hear the same when autism awareness campaigns occur:

We are an epidemic. We are a public health crisis (and get named as such). We are only DSM diagnoses and flight risks and patients and if we’re not trying to hide ourselves we are a failure to a model that teaches us the best patients are telling their stories of how they got better to end the stigma. We are merely the rates of our mental health disabilities among people.

In fact, I would argue that only having stories of getting better hurts those people who may not get better. And why can’t we talk about issues like employment (or better benefits for those who would have a hard time working), access to housing, before access to care? Access to care, if desired, should follow meeting basic needs. It’s a little hard to focus on any sort of treatment when basic needs aren’t being met.

I am tired of awareness. Why do we have more people talking about access to hospitalization instead of peer respite care? Where are our community-based supports? Where are our warmline projects to prevent crises? Where are our self-directed services? Where are they?

Autistics in Mental Health Crisis (third in a series)

Autistics in Crisis Part Three: Stop Mishandling First Interactions with People in Crisis

Even if we had the best resources for Autistics to access, mental health crises in Autistic people will still sometimes occur, and there will still be situations where a non-crisis gets reported to authorities as such. I feel fortunate. My experiences, particularly at GW, were not ideal. But I did not have forcible intervention from authorities. I feel fortunate because even though I am at lower risk of injury from crisis intervention teams (as I am white), forcible admission to a psych hospital (also known as, you know, forced institutionalization, whether short term or long term) is probably doubly traumatic.

I want to talk about a couple of things in this post:

  • How crisis intervention often goes wrong in regards to the police, and the disproportionate risk that autistics of color (with and without mental health disabilities) face here, along with autistics of other marginalized groups
  • Some steps to improve the first interactions by police and first responders with autistic people in crisis, both policy and otherwise

How First Interactions with Autistics in Crisis Go Wrong

For Arnaldo Rios-Soto, an autistic Latino young man now institutionalized in Carlton Palms because the state of Florida fails to provide enough community supports to its disabled community members, even playing with a toy truck in the street resulted in a person calling 911 to report Rios-Soto being suicidal and a threat. The police shot and injured his black therapist, Charles Kinsey, and then claimed they meant to shoot Rios-Soto. The police responded to the scene of an alleged mental health crisis involving black and brown people, and shot Charles Kinsey.

As Autistic activists of color Lydia Brown, Finn Gardiner, and Manuel Díaz wrote for Sojourners:…Whether the officer was actually aiming for Kinsey or Rios-Soto, he has become part of a national pattern. Disabled people represent between one-third and one-half of all people killed by police. Black and brown people are extremely disproportionately likely to die in police-involved shootings… If you’re black or brown and disabled, your likelihood of being targeted by police only increases.”

When I asked Timotheus Gordon, Jr., who in his own words is  “an autistic African-American blogger, writer, event photographer and self-advocate in Chicago” what he felt when he heard what the police said about aiming for Rios-Soto, Gordon told me: “…the fact that the police tried to shoot Rios-Soto instead of Kinsey confirms my fear of walking on the street as an autistic person of color… Disabled people of color can play with a red toy truck, calm down from a meltdown, or rollerblade peacefully on the block and still get harassed by people.”

Finn Gardiner, who co-authored the Sojourners piece, added: “The issue of police violence is compounded if you belong to more than one marginalised community. For example, if you’re an autistic, trans person of colour, the combined effects of racism, transphobia and ableism will make you even more at risk for harm… You may have your identity completely erased. People may only see your race and not your gender identity or your disability.”

Crisis intervention also went wrong in the case of Kayden Clarke, a trans man in Mesa, Arizona. Denied a recommendation for hormone replacement therapy by his therapist because of an Asperger’s diagnosis (placing him on the autism spectrum), he became suicidal. In early 2016, after receiving a report from a worried person, the police arrived at his apartment – and shot Clarke, killing him. The police knew Clarke had an Asperger’s diagnosis.

And in February 2012, Chicago-area police shot and killed Stephon Watts, a Black Autistic teenager as he panicked while holding a knife. I wrote in February 2016 (on my previous blog), “…the police had shown up to “subdue” him…. many, many times in the past. To have had such encounters with the police, which were undoubtedly physical in nature, would be traumatizing.  Even if Watts had not been panicking in the first place, to lash out from fear of being “subdued” again is the result of a fight or flight response… As a Black Autistic, Watts faced multiple marginalization from society, with ableism and racism as a reaction that killed him.” The police knew Watts was Autistic.

And the New York Times recently reported that the NYPD uses “restraining bags” for arrests and crisis intervention, particularly in situations involving those with mental health disabilities – as the Times noted, “the bags are used to restrain those judged to be emotionally disturbed.”

These are just a few examples of the way police handle crises. 

What Are the Solutions?

Like Brown, Gardiner and Díaz, Gordon notes which people are often the targets of such harassment and police shootings: “I also dislike [the] repetitive connection between police violence and victims being disabled people of color.” Gordon went to say what he thinks is a solution to police shootings and mishandling of crisis intervention: “I want racial justice and disability rights/justice organizations to collaborate…  The collaboration MUST include organizers and activists in the disability community and ensure that actions are accessible to all participants.” Gardiner agreed with Gordon on the need for collaboration.

In terms of policy work that advocates can work for, a broad measure for police accountability overall as opposed to just crisis handling is H.R. 2302, the Police Training and Independent Review Act, which would cover comprehensive reform – not just police training on disability and racial/ethnic bias, which many of the officers involved in shootings receive – it also requires states to appoint independent prosecutors to investigate and prosecute police-involved shootings before receiving certain federal funding.

More specifically, we also need to create mobile crisis teams that aren’t police. 911 operators can dispatch those teams instead of law enforcement. Gardiner told me that crisis teams that know how to “engage with marginalised populations” are vital.

Gardiner also recommended the creation of “comprehensive peer and community-based supports that take into account the effects of marginalisation.” He also recommended “peer support like… warm lines*, advocating for comprehensive, long-term training for law enforcement, [and] encouraging police departments to hire people who are aware of racial justice issues.”

*Warm lines are like hotlines people having a hard time can call when they are not yet in crisis and need someone to talk to. I elaborate on them in Part Two of this series. 

. . .

This is the third out of a series of posts.

About the Interviewees

Timotheus Gordon, Jr., also known as Pharaoh Inkabuss, is (in his own words), an autistic African-American blogger, writer, event photographer and self-advocate in Chicago. He is the creator of “The Black Autist”, a blog that emphasizes autism/disability acceptance among people of color, including people in the black community. Gordon is a first year Ph.D student at University of Illinois-Chicago, pursuing a degree in disability studies. Follow his Tumblr blog for updates: http://blackautist.tumblr.com/

Finn Gardiner is a Black, queer, Autistic advocate and activist in the Boston area. He currently works for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) as their Boston Community Coordinator, leads the ASAN Greater Boston chapter, and previously worked for the Institute for Community Inclusion as a Gopen Fellow. He has a B.A. in sociology from Tufts University and is currently a public policy masters student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Follow his blog for updates: http://expectedly.org/blog/