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/ 

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