After a motorist reported that he had seen a young woman walking on the side of an interstate in Oregon in the early morning hours of June 16, an Oregon state police trooper used a taser on her. The girl, as it was only later discovered, was 11 years old and autistic; her father, Aram Hampson explained that state troopers had previously responded to calls about her leaving home.
“Elopement behavior” — wandering away — is not uncommon among autistic children. A study in Pediatrics (the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) found that nearly half of autistic children have been reported missing. A “substantial number” had indeed been “at risk for bodily harm,” from the possibility of traffic injury or drowning.
My own teenage son, Charlie, has wandered. I’m not sure why the 11-year-old Oregon girl did; I know that Charlie’s wandering is related to his also having an anxiety disorder that can activate a flight-or-fight response in him.
In New Jersey where we live, first responders including police officers and emergency medical technicians must receive training in an awareness program about dealing with situations involving autistic individuals and with other disabilities. I’m grateful to say that, in our experience, this training has been effective. Police officers have turned off their sirens and flashing lights (which can deeply agitate an autistic individual with a sensitive sensory system); have spoken slowly and in low voices; have understood that Charlie may not immediately understand verbal requests and that some of his behaviors are not due to aggression, but from fear.
They have not pulled out a taser. According to KDRV, the Oregon state police said that the use of the taser on the girl was “necessary to prevent her from wandering further into the road and putting herself in danger”; a police report says that she had shown “no verbal response or cooperation.” But Adam Bednar, the motorist who saw the girl on the interstate, says that
“She wasn’t going off the road, she was set on walking down the freeway. And I think that, had [the trooper] waited for back up, they could have gotten her without the Taser.”
Afterwards, the girl was taken to a hospital where, according to the police report, medical staff and troopers “started thinking she may be autistic.” They were able to identify her after contacting a local 911 center as her family had reported her missing.
As Hampson said to KDRV, the use of the taser on his daughter was “not necessary” as “there wasn’t any threat to the officers.” But ”misuse of excessive force on the mentally ill is a common police problem,” as Think Progress comments.
In fact, last year an investigation of police in Portland, Oregon, by the Department of Justice found a “pattern of abuse” and excessive force, including tasing, on the mentally ill. Excessive force (including tasers) has also been applied too often to individuals with disabilities including intellectual disabilities. In some cases, police have mistaken unusual behaviors as signs of aggression. One official recounts a case in which an autistic man’s fascination with shiny objects resulted in him reaching for a police officer’s badge; the officer interpreted this as aggression and “all hell broke loose.”
Oregon State police say that they are investigating the incident involving the 11-year-old girl. Certainly, all officers need to be trained about interacting with autistic individuals and those with disabilities. As one publication says in an article about the police and autism, “any kindness, any dignity an officer can offer to such persons will greatly ease the situation when dealing with the person with autism, the parent and the caregiver.” Most of all, the article emphasizes “first, do no harm.”
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