“Teen shot by police”

I was at the gym one morning, sweating my heart out on the elliptical when the above headline appeared on a nearby TV screen. At the time I was listening to a podcast about Cheng I Sao, the most successful pirate in history who also happened to be a woman, so I couldn’t hear what the newscaster was saying, but I didn’t need to hear it. I already knew what it was about.

Through social media, I had learned of Linden Cameron, a 13-year-old autistic boy from Utah who was shot multiple times by a police officer this past September after his mother called 911 to request assistance getting her son to the hospital while he was having a breakdown.

Sometimes events like this hit too close to home and I can’t bear to know the details, but this time I couldn’t look away. After all, I also have an autistic son his age and, if something like this ever happened to him, I would want people to know the details. Now, as I watched images of Linden as a young, happy boy with his family scroll across the screen, I vowed to do more research about his story when I got home.

During the 911 call, the boy’s mother had requested a mental health worker to help calm the situation. Instead, four armed police officers arrived. She warned the responding officers that her son is afraid of police because her own father had been shot and killed by law enforcement earlier this year.

Here is the news clip that I saw that morning at the gym, which includes body camera footage of the incident. Before you view it, I have to warn you that the following video is graphic and might be distressing to watch.

Audio and video from the body camera footage show the officer repeatedly yelling at Cameron to get on the ground and to “knock it off,” to which Linden doesn’t respond. Background noise seems to indicate that at least one other office was also shouting instructions at him. The primary officer then opens fire. After being shot, Linden says he doesn’t feel good and asks the officer to tell his mother that he loves her.

As someone who has a lot of firsthand experience with autism, the first thing I immediately thought was that yelling at the boy was unlikely to be of any benefit in this situation, especially if there are multiple people doing so. I’m loathe to admit that I have yelled at my son in the past out of frustration in the hope of getting through to him. Not once did this tactic ever do any good. My yelling would cause him to shutdown to the point of being completely unresponsive. He wouldn’t talk to me, look at me, or even shake or nod his head to show that he understood. It became like trying to communicate with a brick wall. And, as the parent, I would feel nothing but guilt afterwards. Once I learned that the best thing to do was to give him space and talk to him calmly when he was ready to do so, the outcome was a night-and-day difference for all involved.

The second thing I noticed from watching the video of Cameron was that it was clear to me that he didn’t understand the situation nor did he understand what might happen to him if he didn’t follow the officers’ directions. After being shot, he said, “I don’t feel good.” I’m not sure he realized that he had, in fact, been shot, or that he might be shot a consequence of not following orders. He didn’t say, “You shot me!” or “Don’t shoot!” or something similar. His reaction was more like something you might say when you have a stomach ache. And then he said, “Tell my mom I love her.” *ugh*

There was some discussion beforehand about Linden having access to a gun, which understandably made the officers uneasy, although the video didn’t appear to show him holding a weapon. Granted, it was dark and likely difficult to tell whether or not Linden was armed. It’s also unclear whether or not his mother had explained to the officers that he is autistic.

In this particular situation, law enforcement is required to complete forty hours of training in dealing with mental health situations. Because it is not a mental disability, it seems unlikely to me that autism would be included in such training, although that’s just speculation on my part and I don’t know how much experience these officers have with autism. There are indeed a lot of unknowns in this situation.

According to research by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, people with disabilities – including those on the autism spectrum – are disproportionately injured in interactions with the police and are five times more likely to be incarcerated than people in the general population. One in five teenagers with autism has been stopped and questioned by police by the time they turn 21.

Perhaps you can’t bear to watch an incident like Linden’s. Or, conversely, maybe you’re unaffected by it. After all, this involves people you don’t know and will never meet, and it doesn’t alter your day-to-day existence in any way. Or you might be able to watch this and be bothered by it at the moment, but are able to forget about it tomorrow. Consider yourself very fortunate.

I hope you realize that, although a situation such as this might not impact you, there are a lot of people who are affected by this. Linden is affected by this. I am affected by this. My son is affected by this. Our entire family is affected by this. It’s estimated that one in every 54 people is autistic, which means there are roughly 130 million people worldwide who are affected by this, not to mention the families and loved ones of those individuals. We might one day find ourselves in a similar situation and don’t have the luxury of turning off the TV because it makes us uncomfortable.

Consider the case of Courtney Topic. And Eyad Hallaq. And Charles Kinsey, caretaker of Arnoldo Rios Soto. And a 7-year-old boy identified by the initials LG. And 10-year-old J. Torres. And Oscar Guzman. And this 14-year-old boy in Topeka. And another teenage boy in Fresno who was handcuffed by police after his mother called 911 for paramedics because he was having seizures. And Michael Moore. And Connor Leibel. And 10-year-old Seraph Jones. And Sergei Hall.

All of the people I just mentioned are autistic and experienced an incident of excessive police force, some of which were fatal. The officers involved did not understand or recognize the symptoms of autism and behaviors of those on the autism spectrum.

Sergei Hall was tackled by a police officer and then arrested for evading police after someone witnessed him flailing his arms and yelling while waiting to cross the street at a busy intersection. Someone familiar with autism would likely have recognized his seemingly odd behavior as a clear symptom of autism. After the incident, Sergei tearfully said, “I wish more people understood me.”

I’m not writing this to blame law enforcement for misunderstanding a situation. Police officers have difficult jobs and have to make split-second decisions about potentially life-threatening situations where they often don’t have all the necessary information to make a sound judgement. But the entire purpose of my blog is to raise awareness of autism and create a better understanding of autism – from the general citizenry as well as from law enforcement.

After all, we can’t effectively deal with what we don’t understand.

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