Criminal injustice towards autistic individuals and the regrettable necessity of labeling autism a disability

"Yago", a young autistic man hosted at the association "Elan Retrouve", dedicated to psychiatric disorders in adulthood, paints as he work with an educator
“Yago,” a young autistic man hosted at the association “Elan Retrouve,” dedicated to psychiatric disorders in adulthood, paints as he work with an educator in Paris. Getty Images

Earlier this month, Linden Cameron, a 13-year-old autistic boy, was shot by police in Salt Lake City, UT after a mental breakdown. Allegedly, the police were contacted by his mother for crisis intervention purposes beforehand. Linden ran away after they arrived, and when he didn’t stop while being chased and ordered to get down on the ground, shots were fired. According to his mother, he was unarmed, and it is not clear what threats the police perceived, if any. Linden sustained several internal injuries, and the extent of his psychological injuries, immeasurable.

The case of Reginald “Neli” Latson, a Black autistic man convicted of assaulting a police officer in Virginia in 2010, re-surfaced in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Waiting for a local library to open its doors, Latson was peacefully sitting on the grass outside the library when somebody reported him to the police for “suspicious” activity while “possibly possessing a gun.” Though Latson was determined to be unarmed, he was nonetheless pursued by a deputy who caught up to him and grabbed him while he was trying to walk away, at which point he resorted to fighting the officer. In 2015, a conditional pardon was granted, though Latson continues to be subject to ongoing supervision and may be imprisoned if he does not fully comply with the conditions of the pardon. Advocates continue to petition the governor of Virginia for a full pardon.

The involuntary “fight-or-flight” response to which Linden Cameron and Neli Latson resorted in these cases often ensues when people on the autism spectrum find themselves in stressful and/or confrontational situations. As such, fight-or-flight may be construed as a coping mechanism when the circumstances are overwhelming whereby the autistic individual understandably feels an urgent need to break away. I should know. I have an Asperger’s profile just as Linden Cameron does, and I often ran away from unsettling situations which I could not handle when I was his age and older.

This is hardly criminal conduct, though tragically, it is often misinterpreted as such because it appears to be what a true criminal would sometimes do when trying to avoid arrest. A mental breakdown, like the one Linden Cameron experienced, is often not handled appropriately as well. Appearances can be deceiving and perception and reality are often two very different things. 

I hold plenty of respect for the police. I often thank them for their service when I see them in public and I acknowledge that the vast majority of them do right by the people they are charged with protecting. Furthermore, I understand that they put themselves in harm’s way on a regular basis while on duty. With that said, I am a strong proponent of reforms that would ensure greater accountability for rogue officers who make the wrong choices. I am also in favor of some form of accountability for those officers who do not pursue de-escalation when doing so would be fitting, particularly when there is no evidence that the individual an officer is dealing with is armed. I wonder if the police possess sufficient tools and knowledge to be able to effectively de-escalate situations involving autistic folks who are exhibiting challenging behaviors that are too easily misunderstood, and without them ending up seriously injured or in jail. I wonder if it makes sense for police to collaborate with others who may be better equipped to assess whether a given situation involves a neurodiverse individual, and if so, to bring calm in a way that considers the individual’s unique profile.     

The Ruderman Family Foundation is a philanthropic organization that advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities in society as well as for their civil rights. The cases of autistic individuals, including that of Neli Latson, are within the scope of their work. Despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act decades ago, they argue, rightly so, that the word “disability” is all too often left out of the conversation about disabled victims of police violence, leading to missed opportunities to develop new solutions that would take these victims’ disabilities into greater consideration. When the nature of the disability is mentioned, it is often done so in the wrong context, sometimes resulting in the perpetuation of a false stigma surrounding the disability. Furthermore, when disabled Americans become victims of police violence, their stories either too quickly fade from media attention or fail to be connected to other similar stories, making it difficult to learn from these injustices, recognize the commonalities between them and fight for appropriate reforms. 

With respect to Neli Latson, the Ruderman Foundation concluded that some of the reporting around his assault of a police officer wrongly stigmatized people with autism as being violent, though it neglected to allude to the fact that autistic people, as with disabled people in general, are considerably more likely to be the victims of violence than to be guilty of violent crimes. By stigmatizing autistic people in this fashion, they become more vulnerable. Latson’s story is a case in point, as is that of Linden Cameron and many others on the autism spectrum. It is as if the principles governing the policing of non-autistic individuals are unjustly being applied to neurodiverse individuals in spite of their irrelevance to such individuals.

As somebody living with autism who had to fight to build self-esteem and find true happiness in an essentially non-autistic world, I consider the use of the word “disability” in public discourse about autism to be a mixed bag. On a societal level, labeling autism a disability is clearly essential when it comes to justice for all of the Linden Camerons and Neli Latsons of the world who pay an unjust price as a result of improper treatment under the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act necessitate referring to autism as a disability if autistic individuals who require government assistance or special accommodations in school are to receive the services they deserve. Furthermore, it is very understandable for people with more moderate or severe autism spectrum profiles and those who work with and care about them to view autism as a disability. But what do you do if you are autistic and actively working on learning how to accept and love who you are, yet you are having to do so while being looked upon by society as being disabled? In this respect, the necessity for society to label autism a disability is deeply regrettable to me in that it will inevitably interfere in the process of building self-esteem for at least some people living on the spectrum.  

I was diagnosed with a learning disability when I was around three years old, long before I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. The “disability” label and its ability to get under my skin resulted in me waging war on the learning disability, mostly by working hard enough in school to be able to leave the special education classroom behind as soon as I possibly could. That way, I would no longer have to feel “different” and would be able to play on the same playing field as my peers. The problem was, I often beat myself up emotionally while fighting this war, whenever something didn’t go my way. I did not realize that I was rebelling against a key aspect of who I was, and to no avail, cutting myself down to size along the way, and in so doing, damaging my self-esteem. If only I knew then what I know now, I would have worked at accepting the learning disability for what it was, rather than try to win a losing battle against it. Self-acceptance is a powerful and essential aspect of self-love. Without self-love, one cannot attain true happiness.

The key to learning how to love yourself if you are thought of as being disabled lies in your ability to draw a robust, unwavering line between how others may define you and how you define yourself. Easier said than done, that’s for sure, though I am proof that it is possible and I know I’m not the only one on the autism spectrum who has achieved this. Let society have its reasons for labeling particular struggles or challenges as disabilities, but understand that society cannot force you to label yourself the same way.

It all comes down to how you choose to look at things. I think of my learning disability and Asperger’s profile as personality traits, nothing more, nothing less. I have learned that my autism profile carries many beneficial attributes, and I accept that my challenges are inevitable aspects of being human. Nobody is perfect. You win some and you lose some. Accept who you are, love who you are and be who you are, at all costs.

Sam Farmer wears many hats, among these father, husband, musician, computer consultant, and autism spectrum community contributor. Diagnosed later in life with Asperger’s Syndrome, he writes blogs and articles, records coaching videos, and presents at conferences, sharing stories, ideas, and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in life despite facing challenges and adversity that often interfere in these pursuits. To learn more, visit samfarmerauthor.com.

“A Long Walk Down a Winding Road: Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens” is available on Amazon and can be purchased at all major booksellers. 

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