My Son’s Privileged Encounters With the Police

The police has not been afraid of my autistic son, whose peculiar behaviors are often misunderstood. Is this the case for all families?

Like other parents, I’ve had common nightmares and fears, such as my children being kidnapped or getting in trouble with the law. Given my son Diego’s autism and intellectual disability, I have feared police scenarios a little more keenly than most.

I know other parents with “special” children have to worry. It’s pretty natural, given some sad stories between the autism community and law enforcement, whether in the East Coast, Midwest or West Coast.

When he was young, Diego was not one to wander away, ever. Nonetheless, I was afraid that if he did get lost, he wouldn’t know what to do, and that he would trust an evil kidnapper who offered him candy and told him he’d take him back to his mom. 

Later on, as Diego grew older and reached the peak of his anxious period as a teenager, he would at times scream (in public and private) or hit me (in private). I feared he might hit someone at school or that screaming in public might stir the wrong reaction from law enforcement and, thus, the legal system.

Diego stands out in some ways too. He makes strange sounds at times; says hi to girls he doesn’t know; talks to himself; and misinterprets personal space, frequently bumping into people or standing too close. I’ve feared that these behaviors could also get him into trouble because, when you’re an adult, they can!

None of my worst fears have come to pass, I am happy to write. No one has ever reported feeling threatened by Diego (except the Catholic Church, but that’s a story for a future post).

I have found that people in my corner of the country are not afraid of Diego, a skinny, white, (and cute 😊) adult male who acts weird. Our family’s three encounters with the police would suggest this. However, I also sense that our experience has been positive compared to that of some other people.

Before describing the encounters, though, I also want to make clear that Diego did not “cause” any of them, even though they all involved him.

Encounter #1: Diego was 12 and got “lost”… but not really 🙃 
Boy with glasses
Diego at 12

Following a family celebration at my sister’s house, I went shopping with a couple of relatives, while Andres (my younger son) stayed with his grandmother, and Cesar (my husband) and Diego returned home.

At home, Cesar and Diego hung out for a while and then each went to do their own thing. Cesar’s destination was our bedroom where he quickly fell asleep with the TV on.

When Cesar woke up a little later, he couldn’t find Diego anywhere! He looked and looked: in the garage, under the beds, up and down our street. He knocked on neighbors’ doors and called the home of a family we had recently visited. He called Diego’s grandmother and posed a question that would reveal if Diego was there without raising alarm. (My mom would have had a heart attack if she thought Diego was missing.) Cesar was so beside himself that he kicked a door in the garage and made a hole in it.

As one would expect, Cesar soon called the police. He resisted calling me to explain what was happening because he feared, correctly, that I could have a fatal panic attack. Eventually though, he came up with the idea of calling and asking me to please come home right away because he was feeling sick. 

I was annoyed, of course. Really? He’s so needy, I thought.. When I don’t feel well, I suck it up and let him go about his business. All the same, I headed home.

When I got there, I found a police car and an ambulance in the driveway. Naturally, I felt alarmed and guilty: Cesar must truly be seriously ill. I got out of the car and a perfectly healthy looking Cesar approached me. Instantly, I knew this was about Diego or Andres and my heart started beating incredibly fast. 

“Diego is missing,” someone said. My body just dropped to the ground as if my whole skeleton had melted. Somehow, my brain continued to function and I managed to say something about Diego’s movie plans with our friend Caro. 

It had all been a horrible mistake! I thought I’d told Cesar. I thought he’d heard. I thought he knew. I had thought WRONG. Cesar didn’t know that Caro was taking Diego to the movies to see “Happy Feet”. Caro had picked Diego up when Cesar was asleep and Diego had assured her that he’d said good-bye to dad.

Shortly after the situation became clear, Caro merrily drove in with Diego. Diego was happy as a lark and amused by the presence of the ambulance and police car. The officers spoke to Caro and Diego to confirm that all was fine, wished everyone a good day, and left.

Encounter #2: Teenage Diego (and I) go through a tough time 😔
Teenage boy
Diego at 15

Diego was about 15 and going through the most difficult stage in his life. Imagine wanting, just like others your age — a friend group with shared interests, a college life to look forward to, and maybe romance, but a combination of society and your autism gets in the way. Add hormones and changing meds, and Diego was righteously irritable and insecure. 

I was in the car, about to leave for my first day back to work after the long summer break (I’m a teacher). Diego came out to the driveway and began to whine and then to scream and then to holler because he did not want me to go. 

I was exhausted at the time, so I too quickly escalated to screaming and hollering as I tried to lead Diego back into the house. I can’t recall exactly how it all unfolded, but Andres remembers being woken up and hearing the screaming. The scene ended with me pushing Diego into our pool! After that, we were both calmed down and went back to the house. 

Once things were quiet enough and I was about to leave again, the doorbell rang. A police officer was at the door. A neighbor had called 911 – that’s how horrendous the screaming had been! I opened the door and explained to the kind officer that my son had autism, that he’d had a meltdown, and that all was well. Diego walked over looking fine and said a few words to the officer. Reassured, he wished us a good day and left.

Encounter #3: Diego, now an adult, shows his bravery 🦁
Young man with glasses
Diego at 24

A few years ago, when Diego was 22, Cesar and I went out to dinner at a friend’s house. Diego was at his grandmother’s house when we left and, later on in the evening, his aunt dropped him off at home. (We were to arrive shortly after.)

I, not thinking straight, had left the alarm system on and it went off when Diego opened the door to the house. When the alarm goes off (which it sometimes does “by accident”, usually caused by me), the alarm company calls our cell phones, asks us for our secret code word and disables the alarm. Cell phone reception was bad at our friends’ home, so it was not until we were walking out the door that I got a signal and noticed multiple missed calls and voice messages from Diego, the alarm company, and an unknown number. 

I did not have a chance to hear the messages because another call came in just then. It was a police officer who was at home with Diego and was trying to figure out how to turn off the freaking alarm. I gave him the password and began the short drive home. 

When we got there, we found the officer waiting for us, and Diego already in bed. Diego was proud of himself and told us that he had been brave and that he had just gotten into his bed and covered his head. Gladly, Diego’s anxiety and behaviors had improved immensely since their peak a decade before, and he was able to manage the situation.

The officer was kind and professional, and confirmed that our son had been fine and had not panicked or anything. I was relieved and thanked him profusely. I was so overcome with gratitude that I did not know what to do! I just gave the officer a big hug before he left.

What do these encounters show?

First, that two of them were preventable were it not for my forgetfulness; second, that Cesar is a forgiving person, as he never complained that I’d put him through one of the worst hours of his life when Diego got “lost”; third, that my town’s police department is responsive and professional.

Sometimes, however, I feel that we were lucky and got away kind of easy. For each incident, there could have been other outcomes had the officers made false assumptions. They could have thought, for example, that we were neglectful or unfit parents who could not take care of their disabled child or even keep track of where he was. They could have assumed that Diego was a trespasser or even a burglar. These assumptions may have led to investigations, to visits from social workers, or even an arrest. 

I believe that, in some measure, none of this happened (gladly), because we benefit from a series of privileges. For one, we live in a certain town in Connecticut where the police force serves a community that sees minimal crime and has a population of, on average, highly educated, well-to-do, often entitled people. The dynamic between police and community is one of trust and cooperation. 

I also believe that Diego’s physical appearance protects him. At 25, Diego is a thin, white, sweet-looking young man. He looks vulnerable and harmless (which, by the way, he also happens to be). I know that this is just a stereotype, and that the fact that it benefits him necessarily entails that it harms others who don’t fit it.  

A few years ago, Diego was walking down the street ahead of me and he took a random lady’s hand. He only held it for a few seconds before the woman took a look at Diego, drew away her hand and continued on her way. I wonder: Would her reaction have been different if Diego didn’t look the way he does?

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Would You “Cure” Your Child’s Disability?

Why I would no longer cure my son’s disability if I had a magic pill. How could my views have changed so much?

“We do not realize that our views will change because we are normally unaware of the processes that change them.” – Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness.

Stumbling on Happiness book cover. By Daniel Gilbert

In 2002, when my son Diego was around 8 years old, I went to a conference on the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream classrooms. The conference was unremarkable and I would have forgotten all about it had the presenter not ended it with a reflection on disability.

Disability, she said, was a form of diversity. I had heard this view before and rejected it, viscerally. I actually found it offensive. 

Wait a minute, I used to think, the term diversity relates to things all people inherit, genetically or otherwise, such as race, sex, language and country of birth. It also refers to frameworks we adopt, as in religion or ideology. For example, I added to the diversity of the college I attended because I came from another country (Venezuela) and culture (Hispanic). 

To my mind, the term diversity generally carried a positive connotation about aspects of who you were that few would be desperate to change. By contrast, I did not think of Diego’s developmental disability (autism / intellectual disability) as part of who he was. In fact, it was nothing but a negative condition we were trying to get rid of!

When the conference was over, I approached the speaker to share that I loved my son no matter what but that if a magic pill were invented that would make his disability disappear I would absolutely give it to him. She said something or other about how individuals with developmental disabilities don’t necessarily want to be cured. Two Pills

Then, detecting my accent, she asked where I was from. “Venezuela,” I said, and she went on to rave about the president of my country of birth (the late Hugo Chavez). This ended our short exchange because what she said threw me off (again) and I did not know what conversation to have anymore. To me, you see, Chavez was a curse, a clever and divisive populist whose policies were bound to cause great harm (which they did). 

As I tend to do when overwhelmed, I walked away.

Every once in a while I remember this short exchange, not because I adopted the view of disability as diversity (I have not, at least not yet) but because I gradually lost my conviction about what I would do with the magic pill. Up to the day of that conference, I know I would have given the pill to Diego. Heck, I would have given my right arm to get it! 

Today, I know with equal certainty that if it became available tomorrow I would not, at least not the full dose. Yet I cannot say at which point in Diego’s life I changed my mind.

Photo by Fer Neri

At the time of the inclusion conference, I still was subject to thinking at once magical and rigid.  I saw all that was atypical in Diego, all that was attributed to disability, as separate from who he was. We would get rid of everything the disability brought and leave the true Diego intact.

I can’t say when I began to view the challenges and differences as partly inseparable from Diego, or when I began to differentiate among them. Gradually, however, I went from hoping to eliminate them all to just some. Then I moved to mitigating, accommodating and accepting. Finally, I got to the point of embracing and treasuring a good deal of what I thought of as disability.

Here’s a short conversation I had with Diego last summer:

Me: “What do you think about your autism?”

Diego: “I like having autism. It helps me.”

Me: “Helps you with what?”

Diego: “Calling Caro, abuela, learning about animals and countries, watching movies…”

Me: “Who do you think has autism?”

Diego: “Oliver, Kelly, Andy, Alexa, Mike, Gabi, Michelle- all my friends, you see?”

I wrote the short exchange, word for word, on my phone Notes app because I was immensely bewildered and moved. Also, it’s not often that Diego stays on topic when the subject matter is subjective.

Of the friends Diego mentioned, only Oliver (names have been changed for privacy) has a diagnosis of autism; the other five have other developmental disabilities, such as Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. I learned then that, for Diego, the word autism captures unique ways his friends are like him.

Diego and his friends with “autism” participate in the same programs and activities and live with parents or other adults who support them. His friends with “autism” are those who fully and unquestioningly regard him as a peer, even if their abilities differ widely, just as much as Diego’s abilities differ from those of “normal” people. 

Diego, of course, knows many “normal” young adults and he is aware that they do not have what he calls autism. As much as he wants to do some of what they do but can’t, he still likes having autism. He still wants to be who he is.

Later that same day I asked Diego, “What do you think if someone in your family got sick?” His expression turned nervous and he did what he does when you bring up something he doesn’t want to get into: cover his ears, squint and mumble that he doesn’t want to talk about that. He clearly does not view having autism as being sick. To him, being sick is negative; having autism is just one way of being.

When Diego was younger, I considered disability a tragedy and viewed efforts to “cure” it or prevent it as the most worthwhile. The reality is that in the twenty-plus years that I’ve been part of this world, the prevention efforts have made less of a difference than I anticipated, at least in the case of autism. 

Intensive early intervention is still viewed as the best shot at “recovery”. However, even this focus on early intervention is, dare I say, exaggerated and misinterpreted at times. You see, when our children’s progress is slow or not deemed significant in the early years, it can lead society to give up on their potential and personal goals. People forget that individuals with developmental disabilities are lifelong learners like the rest of us.

Disability does bring hardship. Diego is financially dependent and needs support to stay engaged, safe and healthy. Support translates into time, which I admit frustrates me when I ponder (rather often) that I will never be free with my time like other parents. I must also confess that Diego has almost driven me to insanity many times. He is a love, but he is VERY high-maintenance.

Radical Acceptance book

We have a choice though, in this as in most things when it comes to how we frame them. At this point, what I try to approach is Radical Acceptance, as explained in Tara Brach’s book by the same title. Very succinctly defined “Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.” (Brach’s explanation of Radical Acceptance had such an enormous impact on me that it’s a subject I will continue to endlessly ponder and surely post about.) 

The magic pill question is just a thought experiment, and I can never judge another parent’s answer to it based on my experience with Diego. The fact that I’ve made peace with Diego’s disability does not mean that it’s good or bad or that other parents’ views will change in a similar way. Who knows where I would be if Diego’s disability was more (or less) severe, if my second child also had a disability, if I was a much older (or younger) parent? Heck, I can’t even be certain of what my outlook on Diego’s disability will be ten years from now! 

As Gilbert reminds us, “We do not realize that our views will change because we are normally unaware of the processes that change them.”

For now, my general view on disability is that it is not something to simply normalize, glorify or bemoan. It is, and will always be, part of the human experience, which is always complex. 

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