Could that actually happen to my son?
“I'm just different.” That is what 23-year-old Elijah McClain told police in Aurora, Colorado, after they stopped him as he walked home from a convenience store last August because someone saw the young black man and reported a suspicious person. Those would be some of McClain's last words. They haunt me as the parent of a child who is neurodiverse.
My autistic son was only 5 the first time I took him to our local police precinct so that officers could meet him and understand that he is different.
Last summer, police tackled McClain, who was listening to music and may not have initially heard the officers. They put him in a carotid hold — which cuts off blood flow to the brain — and paramedics called to the scene administered ketamine, a strong sedative, although the unarmed, 140-pound McClain was already handcuffed and on the ground. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.
On body-cam footage, he could be heard pleading and sobbing in police custody: “Oh, I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to do that. I just can't breathe correctly.”
He also told officers that he loved them.
Like many Americans, I had not heard of McClain until this month, when the decision not to pursue criminal charges against the arresting officers drew more scrutiny in the wake of George Floyd's killing.
When my son, now 8, asked recently if he could go to a Black Lives Matter march, I hadn't known about the massage therapist in Colorado who played violin at a local shelter to soothe the animals. (McClain's family have said he was anaemic and sensitive but not whether he had a disability. McClain himself told police he was an introvert.)
I only knew that being different and black in America means that my son is vulnerable if stopped by police.
A 2016 report, analysing incidents from 2013 to 2015, found that nearly half the people killed by police had some sort of disability. A 2019 study of police-involved deaths found that one in every 1,000 black men is at risk of being killed by law enforcement.
My son's behaviour can be unpredictable. He doesn't read social cues, and he doesn't really understand authority. When he makes a mistake, he often starts shouting. After he calms down, he always apologises — almost immediately — for “causing a little bit of trouble”.
I took my son to the police station as a kindergartner because I wanted officers to understand more about autism and how he may react if they confronted him. Autistic people may be extra sensitive to light, sound and touch, or have difficulty following commands — especially if they are yelled. So to officers, their behaviour can appear suspicious or aggressive.
Confrontations between police and people with autism often escalate quickly. Police need better, and mandatory, training about people who are “different”, people such as McClain or my son.
Some departments use virtual-reality programs to simulate interactions with someone who is autistic. A Florida-based organisation that certifies theme parks as autism-friendly also provides training for first responders.
I'm scared of how my son's behaviour may be interpreted by others even now. I've been trying for years to get him to walk on the sidewalk and not cross the grass in other people's yards. If he sees a flower or leaf he likes, he often approaches to get a closer look. I'm terrified that some day he is going to try to pick the wrong flower in the wrong yard.
I worry that as a teenager or young black man, if my son wears a hoodie someone may call the police because he looks threatening. If police approach him and he doesn't react in a typical way, would they wrestle him to the ground? As McClain did, would my son say that he is a vegetarian and beg for breath?
Already, I've tried to instil how he should act around police. My son doesn't understand why anyone would be afraid of him or assume that he is a bad person because of his skin colour. When I tried gently to explain, he cried.
When he asked about attending a Black Lives Matter march, I said we could go but warned that it might be loud. (Noise can agitate my son, who often wears headphones in public.) I asked if he wanted instead to organise a march in our neighbourhood. He did.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, neighbours and my son's special education teacher gathered at the corner of our street wearing masks and holding signs. As my son danced and twirled in front, about 150 people followed him on a six-block loop in a show of solidarity for racial justice.
No one sang or chanted, out of respect for the eight-year-old organiser, who wore noise-cancelling headphones and carried a yellow and green sign he painted himself: “Don't be scared of me.”
Under that he scribbled “your friend” and signed his name.
As we turned a corner, a white man on a bicycle assessed the young marchers and then hollered: “You're racist!”
My son stopped for a few seconds. “Why wasn't he wearing a helmet?” he asked me. “I hope he doesn't get hurt.”
• Jackie Spinner is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post