Over the past several weeks since the news broke about Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, I’ve been talking to fellow moms in multiracial and Black families more than ever before. Our number one goal is to make sure our Black children are safe, now and in adulthood. This means preparing our children in ways white parents of white children do not have to. In our family, we don’t allow our children to play with neon, plastic, foam bullet guns outside of the inside of our home. We have modeled for our children what to do when they get pulled over. When my kids go into stores, they are not allowed to have their hoods up, their hands in the pockets, run or yell, or leave without a store-issued bag and receipt.
When I see images of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and when I think about Emmett Till, I cannot help but think of my own son, who is a big, Black boy. He’s only seven years old right now, enjoying the summer break between first and second grade. I know what I’m supposed to teach my son (and I do, with the help of Black adults), but there’s another added layer of difficulty and angst when a Black boy has special needs. When he encounters a police officer, he may not remember what the rules are, he might go into fight-mode, or he might try to flee a situation, putting himself in further danger of being harmed or killed. Parents of Black boys with special needs have added pressures and fears.
Scary Mommy interviewed three moms who have Black sons with special needs. We wanted to see how they are navigating this precarious situation with their children, especially in the wake of a racial equity uprising. What we learned is, these mothers are carrying a weight that they cannot shake.
Sheila’s family resides in the St. Louis area. Her family consists of herself who is Black, her Black husband, their Black-Mexican sixteen-year-old son, and their five-year-old Black son who has autism. A few years ago, the family had left their garage door open. A burglar stole their lawn mower and other items. Sheila called the police, intending to file a report. She and her family sat outside waiting or the police to arrive. Two officers pulled up, and instructed Sheila’s husband to make his hands visible and asked for his identification. When Sheila asked the what they were doing, the officers replied that the man (Sheila’s husband) fit the description of the suspect. Sheila had not given a description when she called. The reality is that a police encounter is always a gamble for Black people.
Sheila’s young son has difficulty understanding directions, and his limited language abilities can cause him frustration, anxiety, and anger. She told Scary Mommy that autism isn’t a visible disability, making it next-to-impossible for police to immediately know that her son has special needs. She fears that “the officer may misconstrue my child’s behaviors and inability to verbalize as rudeness and cause for suspicion. This suspicion could result in my child being detailed or killed not only due to his disability but also the color of his skin.” She also worries about “fragile white people” who “sometimes feel a sense of authority and entitlement” when summoning the police, which can result in “falsely reporting an incident with my child as suspicious or criminal” and putting his life in danger.
Kora is a white mother of five Black children, several of whom have special needs. Her eight-year-old biracial son has autism, ADHD, global developmental delays, sensory processing disorder, and dyscalculia (that’s a math learning disability). She told Scary Mommy that her son’s reactions are unpredictable, and he can be easily and quickly overwhelmed. It takes him longer to process incoming information, and he processes that information differently.
She notes that her son is an “eloper,” meaning, when he is frightened, often by loud noises, he runs. His needs are severe enough that her son qualifies for a disability parking pass. She worries that as her son gets older, bigger, and stronger, he will appear intimidating. Kora told Scary Mommy that she’s not sure any “amount of teaching or practice will prepare him for a situation in which he’s scared”—like if he was ordered to do something by a police officer. Like Sheila’s son, Kora’s son’s disabilities aren’t immediately apparent. When he’s startled, he quickly becomes agitated and scared.
We also talked to Jessica Lipscomb, mom of three. Her oldest son, who is three and a half, has autism and sensory processing disorder. Jessica told Scary Mommy that her son is non-verbal, and he communicates using mannerisms and a communication board, in which he can share up to two phrases. Because of his SPD, he often spins, shakes his hands, and moves his body to self-regulate which can appear to someone as though her son is not listening. However, his movements help him listen, and if he’s stopped, it bothers him. If he is stopped in the middle of his movements, he becomes bothered.
Jessica shared that her concerns include that her son doesn’t know how to “read a room,” meaning, he is very literal and doesn’t understand body language, for example. If he were to encounter a fragile white person, she knows her son won’t be able to speak or defend himself. As far as potential police encounter, her son wouldn’t understand directions and be able to comply. For now, her children are always with Jessica and her children, because they are young.
What’s particularly terrifying is that police often give a Black person zero chances to respond, such as the case of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old Black boy who was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer. Even if children are given the chance to respond to an adult request, not every child can communicate. Some might behave in a way that society deems odd or inappropriate, such as running away, spinning, freezing up, moaning. Given all the BBQ Beckys, Cornerstore Carolines, and women like Karen in Central Park (AKA: Amy Cooper), this is particularly terrifying for Black boys with special needs.
These mothers deal with double stereotypes: those of Black people and those of people with disabilities. This also means even more fear for their children’s safety, especially in situations involving white fragiles and police officers. Many people do not understand disabilities, nor is it always obvious that a child has special needs.
I don’t have the answers, but as a mom of a Black son myself, I’m desperate for change. There needs to be racial bias training and special needs training for officers, as well as an understanding that the two can cross over. If police are going to protect and serve, they must first understand who they are protecting and serving, which includes Black boys with special needs.
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