The recent case of a young teen with autism who was shot by the police in a Salt Lake City suburb, after his mother called the police while he was in crisis, raises some serious questions. This issue is important for me mainly because I am autistic myself — and back at that kid’s age, I suffered several psychotic episodes when I was in a crisis. In some rare cases, I became a danger to myself and others around me. I remember well one of these episodes caused by a change in medication when I was around 13 or 14. This particular crisis necessitated that I go to the local children’s hospital for a week. When you live this type of crisis, you become really frustrated at everything and everyone — and everything becomes a struggle.
One major issue among police, in general, is that they seem ill-equipped to deal with situations where they don’t have to use potentially lethal force. I am not sure if this is due to the lack of proper training or a ‘’trigger-first’’ culture among police forces — which all have different sorts of training based on their locality — but there is a need for police to have better policies to avoid more events like this, a process where bullets are not used so quickly. I acknowledge that being a policeman is not always an easy job because it involves dealing with a lot of cases of people with mental health issues. But since it’s an almost everyday part of the profession, there is a need to have a better mechanism in place to deal with these cases.
When you live this type of crisis, you become really frustrated at everything and everyone — and everything becomes a struggle.
Considering that close to 1% of the population in the U.S. is on the autistic spectrum, perhaps it’s time for police in the United States and elsewhere in the world to start having better procedures in order to deal with crises that do not require using potentially lethal force. If such reforms are not undertaken now, there is a risk that these events become more and more common in the future. And it’s people who live with a complex neurological condition like I do who will pay the price, rather than receiving the proper care needed in cases like that. One thing is sure: instead of shooting a teen with autism, perhaps finding ways to calm him down would be a better way to go.
Mathieu Vaillancourt is an Ottawa, Ontario-based analyst and writer with a degree in international development.