As A Black Mom Raising A Black Son With ASD, I Hope More States Follow Alabama's Example
As the parent of a kid on the autism spectrum disorder, I’ve heard from people who don’t understand that a Black kid can have ASD, that “he looks fine.” What does that even mean? I am still trying to understand that one. My son may feel and appear physically fine — like, he’s not suffering from a stuffy nose or a nagging cough — but neurologically, he is managing his feelings, thoughts, emotions, and environment in ways that mean extra work for him and us as his parents. According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, an “invisible disability is a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.”
Together, we’ve worked hard with him to foster skills that can help him in the real world. For instance, when he is entering a new social situation or visiting new family members, we show him pictures to better prepare him for the upcoming interactions. But as much as we try to prepare him, there will be situations as he grows into an adult that we cannot predict, let alone get him ready for.
As he grows into the man he will become, my fears about how the world sees and understands him worries me. With racial profiling and the extent to which police officers react before they truly assess a situation, I cannot help but hold onto the fear that a cop somewhere, in some place, will mistake the headphones my son constantly wears (and cannot hear anything with them on) for failure to listen to the command and use excessive force. Upon first glance, you can’t tell he’s on the spectrum – so what if they mistake him as a danger?
These, among countless others, are my fears as a Black mom raising a neurodiverse Black son in America. But because of organizations like KultureCity, an organization committed to educating communities about the sensory needs of individuals and how people can learn to work better with them, I now have a glimmer of hope that things might improve.
In an interview with Scary Mommy, KultureCity’s executive director Uma Srivastava reminds us that everyone can benefit from participating in sensory-inclusive training. KultureCity is impacting the way law enforcement works with communities by partnering with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to make it the first state to provide sensory-inclusive training to its law enforcement officers. Here’s why that matters to us all.
Let’s first talk about what sensory issues are. My son does not look me (or others) in the eye. If he does, it is brief — so brief that if your eyes are not glued to his, you will miss it. He cuts the tags off of all of his clothes and feels most comfortable wearing the same clothes regularly. He leans into routines, and struggles when those routines change. He depends on the consistency of each day. If there is a slight change, his anxiety increases, and lately, his frustration with the change does too.
Removal of the tags, changes in routines, sensitivity to sound, are all sensory-related issues. Uma shares,“Sensory needs are not just found in the state of Alabama or certain demographic regions; they are represented by 1 in 6 individuals in every community and neighborhood. The need not only exists in Alabama but everywhere.”
Alabama may be the first state to require its police officers receive sensory-inclusive training, but hopefully others will follow suit. In a statement on the states’ official page, Governor Kay Ivey states, “I’m proud ALEA (Alabama Law Enforcement Agency) took initiative to train all sworn officers to be aware of and properly identify those with invisible disabilities. KultureCity training goes hand in hand with my administration’s goal to make mental health a priority and provide critical support to those that need it the most.”
In Season 2, Episode 6 of the Netflix series, Atypical, the main character, Sam, who has ASD, is held by police in a very scary way. As I watched, I felt my body clench with fear for this character on television, a boy who is not my son but could have very well been. It was scary to watch — because it happens in real life.
Uma shares, “People with invisible disabilities (ID) tend to react differently and get overwhelmed more easily than neurotypical individuals due to various sensory sensitivities. These factors, along with the communication challenges, mean there is a lot of opportunity for confusion and actions that can be misinterpreted or cause additional escalation during emergencies. These behaviors include avoiding eye contact, being unsteady on their feet, appearing agitated or pacing, not complying with directions, and being sensitive to touch. Our training ensures that interaction with someone with an ID has a more positive outcome.”
Uma points to one of the many reasons sensory-inclusive training is important for law enforcement officers everywhere, not just in Alabama: “In 2020, the CDC reported that 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism and it can affect all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Young Black males are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, and those with autism are seven times more likely to encounter police than neurotypical individuals.”
These numbers alone tell us that sensory-inclusive training for law enforcement agencies can save lives. We know when law enforcement officers are trained better and understand others more, they can do their jobs better. That, however, is not rocket science. It is obvious. KultureCity is currently in the process of providing sensory-inclusive training to law enforcement within more than 21 cities.
We need more organizations like this. The work they do can help all of us — not only police officers — become more aware and attuned to the diverse needs of others.
For those living with invisible disabilities, like my son, trainings like the ones provided by KultureCity can make an interaction with police easier and more positive for all parties involved. This training should be the norm, a mandatory part of the job as law enforcement across all 50 states. The lives of neurodiverse individuals could literally depend on it.
To learn more or to sign up to receive a KultureCity sensory-inclusive training, please visit kulturecity.org.
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