Thank you David Dennis Jr.
Two months ago, my wife and I sat in the Marcus Autism Center’s exam room and heard the doctors tell us our son, Langston, had Autism Spectrum Disorder. I can’t articulate how I felt then because now, even weeks removed, I can barely articulate how I’m feeling now as I type these words. Mostly, on the drive home, I vacillated between worst-case scenario panic and optimism that everything will be okay. However, at some point on the way home I started thinking about what would happen if my son came in contact with a police officer, and I began to break down. Yes, less than an hour after hearing my son has autism, I took into consideration what it means when he interacts with a cop. This is the reality of a Black parent in America.
Autism is a disorder characterized by social interaction difficulties, verbal and nonverbal communication issues and a penchant for repetitive movements. Since we caught my son’s diagnosis early — he’s only two years old — we aren’t quite sure exactly where he falls on the autism spectrum and won’t know until he’s a few years older. So we don’t know what his autism will look like or what sort of difficulties (if any) he’ll be faced with.
I’m not particularly scared or worried about him in terms of his autism anymore. He’s already got a great foundation and we’ve sought out as much therapy as possible. He’s still amazing and he’s still the great boy he’s always been. We have the same expectations of him as we had before and feel as though he can still lead a perfectly happy life. But my biggest fear is what happens if a cop sees my son and feels threatened because my son doesn’t fit within a cop’s normative ideas of proper behavior.
Every time therapists or specialists see Langston, they show amazement at the fact he’s been diagnosed with autism because he’s so social. He’s shown tremendous advancements and is doing amazing things every day. It’s even possible that by the time our son is in high school, it’d be virtually impossible to tell that he has autism at first glance. While this is encouraging and has given us comfort, it worries me that a cop won’t know he’s dealing with a person who may have issues communicating. Instead, he’ll see a resistant Hulk-ish demon who’s just disobeying orders, thus deserving to get choked in the street.
Just this week, one of our therapists sent a behavioral plan for Langston, saying that if he didn’t follow spoken instructions then we should physically guide him to do what we want from him. But his therapists are White. And as incredible and helpful as they’ve been, they don’t live with the reality that we do. Our son needs to know how to follow verbal instructions because if he doesn’t, a cop will find that as justification for ending my boy’s life. While we have to modify our language and communication to better convey our needs to our son and build his social skills, him knowing how follow explicit police instructions is non-negotiable. It’s life and death. I need him to know these things.
I keep thinking about what would happen if a cop is wearing gloves and puts his hands on my son. And my son pulls away because the texture of the gloves bother him. Or if my son just doesn’t like being touched by strangers. Or doesn’t react well when people point or raise their voices at him. Right now, the best way to get Langston to follow instructions is to get at eye level with him and explain very calmly what we need from him. What if that’ll always be the best way to communicate with him and a cop sees my son’s inability to process orders as an act of disobedience. What if my son pulling back from a cop is seen as an act of aggression? What if a simple repetitive motion is mistaken for an attempt at physical confrontation? If a cop is yelling at my son and he doesn’t respond because he doesn’t understand, what’s stopping the cop from murdering my boy in cold blood?
The Mike Brown murder affected my family as I imagine it affected millions of people. We saw our son in that teenage boy walking down the street, gunned down in cold blood. The Eric Garner video, though, hit closer to home. Because when I look at that Eric Garner video I see autism. I see someone trying his hardest to communicate to a group of people who just don’t hear him. Garner is screaming at the top of his lungs in plain English but his language doesn’t mean anything. He’s an outsider, society literally pouncing on him because they don’t understand. Silencing him because he’s not fitting into the behavior they want for him. He’s alone. He’s scared. And he doesn’t understand what’s happening to him. I see Mr. Garner. I see my son. I see Black people silenced by any means necessary. I see lives gone in the blink of an eye. And I see how any perceived resistance could mean the end for my first and only son.
I’ve cried too damn much in the last couple of months. I’ve worried and lost sleep, mentally punching at empty spaces and feeling physically exhausted as America chokes the air from our lungs. My son wasn’t just diagnosed with autism. He was diagnosed with a target on his head and the fear of a cop aiming at that target is crippling. There was a time I wanted police to protect my family, but I don’t want them anywhere near us. I don’t want the police to serve or protect us. I just want them to leave my boy the hell alone. Maybe that will be the best thing they can do to help save his life.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and editor based out of Atlanta (but it’s still WHO DAT all day). He’s currently an editor at Moguldom Media whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, CNN Money, The Source, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the Internet. He’s a New Orleans Press Club award recipient and has been cited in Best Music Writing. He’s also a proud alum of Davidson College.