Like many people, I have several different hats I wear throughout the day. One of those hats happens to be as an advocate for autism families.
When I heard that Stephon Watts had been shot and killed by Calumet City Police in February, I was very upset. According to news reports (and yes, I understand you have to take everything you read with a grain of salt), the police were familiar with Watts and knew about his diagnosis, but this time they had guns drawn instead of the Tasers. The end result is one of the worst nightmares of any parent of a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We’ve heard it before. This isn’t the first time a child with Autism has been killed by police. And 911 calls by frantic parents are more frequent than John Q. Public realizes.
Naturally an investigation occurred to determine if the Officers involved acted appropriately. Naturally those Officers were cleared of any wrong doing.
I read about this clearing of the Officers in one of my local newspapers. But that’s not what made me angry.
I read the comments by citizens of Northwest Indiana.
Then I got angry.
Almost every single one of the comments put the blame on the parents. Now, this shouldn’t get me upset because in the not-to-distant past, lack of love from the mother (called the “refrigerator mother”) was widely accepted to be a cause of Autism. And just recently, someone spent a ton of money on research which suggested that obese mothers are a cause for Autism. So, throughout history, there has been a large amount of time and money spent on blaming the parents. Which leads to comments like this:
Notice that the commenter said “didn’t/wouldn’t control him” — not ‘couldn’t’. There’s a big difference between couldn’t and wouldn’t. As an advocate I can tell you that currently in Northwest Indiana the pickings are pretty slim for teens with Autism. Parents have done therapy for years, to have little to no positive affect on the most difficult behaviors. Parents stop taking their kids to therapy because they simply can not afford it anymore, or they have not seen enough progress to warrant the continued expense. So it’s easy for John Q. Public to assume that Stephon’s parents were negligent in treating their son’s Autism. But until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, we don’t really know, do we?
What we do know is that John Q. Public knows very little about Autism, how it affects the individual, how it affects the family and how it affects the communities we live in. I can recount stories of parents who’s teens/tweens and adult children with autism have gotten violent and police have been called, or the child had to be admitted to the psych ward because they were a danger to themselves and others. I can recount stories of extended family members/friends faulting parents for their lack of discipline (“If you’d just spank Johnny, he wouldn’t act that way.”) or outright ostracizing the family members with Autism because they are a “bad kid.” But if you ask John Q. Public about Autism, more than likely they’ll say they something about Rain Man or they heard it was the vaccines or they feel so sorry for those poor families.
This dialogue needs to change. This conversation needs to change from a blame game to understanding the complex issues that surround autism (political, societal, monetary, emotional). Parents can put THOUSANDS of dollars into treatment and still have a tantruming 25-year old. That’s the reality. What these families need is not judgement about their parenting skills, but help and understanding from the community. Our First Responders need more training in how to handle the autistic population. Families need more local programs to help them navigate all that Autism throws at them. We need a John Q. Public that will listen and not judge.
Until this dialogue changes, we’ll hear of more Stephon Watts stories as the children of the Autism bubble are hitting their early 20′s now. What will you decide to talk about – who to blame, or how to help?