To Serve and Protect
On Wednesday morning, a 15-year-old Illinois boy with ASD, Stephon Watts, was shot and killed by police officers who responded to a call from the teen’s parents asking for help in managing his violent behavior. According to news reports, the boy didn’t want to go to school that morning. His father took away his computer in response, resulting in an outburst from the young man, who subsequently brandished a knife (there are conflicting reports regarding the type of knife) and cut the arm of an officer. There were five police officers on site, at least one of whom had a taser. However, they made the decision that the only way to subdue the young man was to shoot him.
My heart goes out to the family. What’s more, I am deeply concerned about how this boy was failed by the systems that should have been in place to support him. While his death was at the hands of a few police officers, as a nation we must bear the responsibility for our inability to adequately address the needs of autistic teens and adults who engage in aggressive behaviors.
Since June 2010, police had been called 12 times to help deal with Stephon’s behavior. In an incident in December—on the boy’s birthday—Stephon hit his mother in the face. He then fled from officers with a knife and was apprehended through the use of a stun gun. Stephon’s parents indicated in interviews that they were told by social service personnel that the only way to access psychiatric hospitalization for the young man was to call the police first. It is also worth noting that Stephon attended a school for children with autism.
I will leave it to others to discuss what the police officers should have done differently. Instead, I want to focus on the support needs that were clearly unmet in Stephon’s world. While it has been reported that Stephon had an Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis, it’s reasonable to question whether he had a co-morbid psychiatric condition as well. If this is indeed the case, was that condition being treated and monitored? Is it true that the only way Stephon could get mental health care was through police intervention? If so, this means that mental illness was being addressed via crisis management, not through ongoing care.
Then there’s the issue of training for people in Stephon’s “Circles of Support.” What kind of Behavioral Support Plan  was in place at school, and did his family receive any guidance in implementing similar strategies at home? It’s crucial that IEP planning for transition into the community focus on behavior as well as academics. It’s not easy to know what to do in the face of an outburst on the part of a 220-pound 15-year-old. It can take some real pros to de-escalate such a situation. Is it possible that family training in how to manage oppositional behavior might have helped? If so, is there a network in place to provide parents with this education?
The police did have a bit of training in autism. The officers had participated in a three-hour workshop designed to help them respond to incidents involving people with ASD. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s better than nothing. The problem is—as anyone who has parented or worked with folks with autism can attest to—there’s no rulebook here. Behavior management is individual-specific. Also, most workshops on autism don’t address what to do if the individual involved has uncontrolled psychiatric issues in the mix.
If Stephon’s altercation with police was an isolated incident, it would be terrible enough. But it’s not. Autistic adults have run-ins with the law on a regular basis. Fortunately, the majority of those incidents don’t result in fatalities. But what’s going to happen as increasing numbers of autistic adults enter their communities without adequate behavioral and mental health supports? Are we going to expect law enforcement personnel to step in? If so, we should expect an increase in events like Stephon’s shooting. The nature of police work is to respond to crises. People make different decisions in a reactive situation than they do in a proactive one. And it’s not reasonable to expect our police officers to become behavior management specialists.
The story of Stephon’s death provoked a number of responses on the Autism After 16 Facebook page.  One parent posted, “This my worst nightmare, my son is also aggressive, the school called the police just today.” We need to think long and hard as a community and as a country about how to keep this kind of nightmare from becoming increasingly all too real. We need state social service systems--agencies that are charged with providing medical and behavioral supports—to make good use of resources rather than tying dollars up in layers of bureaucracy. Otherwise we will find that we have simply exchanged one institutional system for another as an increasing number of adults with autism find themselves facing police.