Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A teen with autism gets arrested for violence: This didn’t have to happen

I read a disturbing post on a Facebook friend's page yesterday. Someone in her circle has a 14-year-old brother with autism who was taken into police custody on Thanksgiving Day. The girl noted that her brother was charged with assault, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and harassment with a bodily substance.

The story made headlines in their area. The boy's mother, Lisa Berner, called the police after he tried to cut himself several times with a knife then took off. He kicked one officer and fought them as he was put into the car, spitting and attempting to break the car's windows and partition. He was taken to a juvenile detention center, Lisa was told, until he could be taken to a residential facility. At his hearing last weekend, she said he was being treated like a criminal, complete with handcuffs and a jumpsuit.

"I have never been so sad in my life," his sister wrote on Facebook. "He has no idea what any of that means. He has no idea what is going on. Ehren is only 14 years old and deserves a chance.... It took charges being pressed against him for the county to start taking this shit seriously. [They told] my mom to call the police when he started having violent and destructive behaviors, that was the best 'crisis plan' they could offer, in case anyone is wondering why the police were involved in the first place. It should never have went this far."

This is heartbreaking, awful, maddening and downright terrifying if you have a child with autism or other cognitive disabilities. A new analysis by Cornell University published in the American Journal of Public Health, based on data from 8,984 people, found that people with disabilities had a 43 percent higher chance of being arrested by age 28 than those without. One report in 2015 by the National Disability Rights Network found that children with disabilities are disproportionately placed in the juvenile justice system. A data analysis by NBC News this past February found that both black students and ones with disabilities were referred to police at rates disproportionately higher than their white and non-disabled peers.

The need for first responders—police, EMS personnel, firefighters, nurses—to receive training for working with people with disabilities became tragically clear four years ago when Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, died after being handled by police when he got upset outside a movie theater. It changed how Maryland trains law enforcement officers. As this recent police-teen encounter illuminates, though, youth with autism around the country can run a real risk of arrest depending on who shows up at their home.

There were some solutions mentioned on my friend's Facebook page. One woman noted that Phoenix has a social service agency that sends an ambulance and trained therapists to a scene, and transports a person to a facility if necessary. Another pointed to a dedicated psychiatric emergency facility in Oregon that opened in January of 2017, which provides care for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Meanwhile, a pair of Ohio lawmakers have proposed a voluntary registration for individuals with autism, speech impairments or other disabilities that hamper communication. Law enforcement officials could only see the information when they looked up a driver's license or license plate. While this may appeal to some parents and family members concerned about safety, it's not hard to understand why some individuals might be opposed to making their disabilities known in a database.

Of course, options for helping individuals with autism in crisis and averting police involvement or arrest is one thing; finding behavioral support to avoid crises in the first place is another, as many parents know all too well. The sad truth is, parents of youth with autism who are acting violently may be left with no choice except to call the police on their own children.

For a year now, Lisa Berner said, she has begged for services to help her son with his violent behaviors. "The minimal services organizations offered us have been inadequate and inappropriate for our situation," she told a reporter. "I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel."

Autism Speaks has information for parents and individuals with autism on creating a handout for emergency situations, plus teaching children and teens how to interact with first responders. There are also law enforcement crisis intervention teams nationwide to call when there is a psychiatric or neurological crisis; their main purpose is pre-arrest jail diversion for those in a mental crisis (click here for a map to find one near you).


  1. until most of society catches up- maybe a medic alert type bracelet for these kids and adults would at least cause civil servants to pause before they act.

    1. Do you have any firms or service organisations to recommend in this matter? Do you find that some work better than others - or not at all?

      Ah - civil and public servants. In Australia public servants are called public because of convict times.

  2. I will share a positive police story. Several weeks back our car broke down while sitting at a stoplight waiting to turn left. Fortunately there wasn't much traffic. My daughter (who has a permit) was driving. I raised the hood, had her put the flashers on, and called a tow truck. A police officer parked behind us with his lights flashing for safety. He then took us home. He indicated that he wanted my 15-year-old son (autism, non-verbal) in the front seat. I was concerned because of all of the buttons. He had already assessed the situation. He didn't want Luke in the back seat where he would be caged in. He told me that twice! It was only a 2 mile drive, but Luke was super proud to be sitting in the front seat (you could tell by the huge smile). This in no way is like the situation of the other young man. But we met an officer who got it!

    1. So good that your son sat in the front seat and that the officer respected Luke should not be caged and had done a good pre-assessment.

      You can have a page about Luke and the police and have it at the department. Like in "Autism and unfortunate situations" and the Sanderson one-page profile.

      I think police tend to be understanding when cars break down.

  3. I have three sons with Autism (Aspergers) ages 19, 18 and 16. This is my biggest fear! A few year ago, one of our boys had a meltdown and threw a CD case during this episode. The case hit my husband on his head, cutting it. Meanwhile, a neighbor called police (the windows were open) and the responding officers took note of my husband's injury and wanted to arrest our son for domestic violence". That meant we would have no control over what happened to him or where he ended up. We had a crisis plan and were in the middle of following it when the police officers arrived. We were able to dissuade them from arresting him based his age (15), Autism dx and support services. I asked what I could do in the future to let responding officers know what they could be walking into, especially to not escalate the situation further! I'm in Ohio and the only measure we can take is to notify the local PD that "individuals with mental disturbance" reside at our adhopes that in the event of an emergency, crisis trained officers would be dispatched. It is not guaranteed, it depends on who is available. It was crushing to call my sons "mentally disturbed" in hopes of saving their lives.

    1. Paula:

      as you are in Ohio - did any of the young men have an Autism Scholarship or is that below a certain age?

      Thinking of them all. Domestic violence?

      Crisis plans are good things.

      Three people I know in Ohio or have been based there: Melanie Yergeau [she would know something about the mental health crisis system in Ohio and is a big ELO fan]; Amanda Forest Vivian [she studied in Lorain County] and Katie Kagan [she is over in the next county]. Also there's DJ Savarese who is a contemporary to your eldest or some years older.

      I asked what I could do in the future to let responding officers know what they could be walking into, especially to not escalate the situation further! I'm in Ohio and the only measure we can take is to notify the local PD that "individuals with mental disturbance" reside at our adhopes that in the event of an emergency, crisis trained officers would be dispatched. It is not guaranteed, it depends on who is available. It was crushing to call my sons "mentally disturbed" in hopes of saving their lives.

      Yes. And it is rare that mentally disturbed actually saves a person's life...

  4. This is so scary to me and hits close to home. I just emailed our local CIT representative and I pray we never need services but if we do I want to know them.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing our story. Very well written.

    -Lisa & Olivia Berner

    1. Glad you liked Ellen's dissemination, Lisa and Olivia.

      You're good people.

  6. This is a hugely important topic, and you have identified many of the embedded issues involved. I would suggest being more than a little wary of advice from Autism Speaks. While this organization is world famous, it has a very disturbing track record in terms of it's perspective on autism, the way it has conducted its campaigns, and their governance. Some of their ideas on this particular topic may be okay, but I would recommend instead or in addition looking at materials from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which was founded and is run by autistic people, and is an extremely effective and sound organization with a somewhat different perspectives on all of these issues. Here's a link pertinent to this issue:

    1. Thank you Andrew.

      I saw Finn Gardiner wrote it and interviewed ten people or they gave their opinions and views on behaviour interventions.

      And this week the 2017 Annual Report "Roots" has been released.

  7. I have posted this same comment in another news article. I hope in the end, the boy is given help and he can be with his family.

    Have read different news articles about this mother who has a son with autism to get a better picture. Very similar case with him because we have one who has autism as well. I believe that she really has to be constantly on her toes for having a child with autism as they grow up. What the agencies said that the boy must be kept busy is true or else all of the out-of-this-world-whatever-they-may-be will constantly pop up and change. I have noticed that as the child with autism grows up, they deal with the stress of teenage years in a way different from regular teenage kids. It is hard to be a constant hawk over the child with autism and can really be stressful but to call on every agencies of the government to deal with the different behaviors of the child with autism is too much. In short, I believe that as parents, we have to help our kids first before seeking out too much help and when the outside help is not given, you will put the blame on these outside actors. Kids on the spectrum can not really be compared to one another but as parents we need that extra hat to put on since we do not want our kids to be with handcuffs nor be in court for something that we can try to get away from. It is hard to judge the mother but many times, we really need to be tough or else more problems can arise instead of just only attending to our small group which is the family but now, there is the problem of the police, problem of the appearing in court, problem of finding a place to house the child, among others. In short, the problem gets bigger and the child with autism is not actually helped at all. Help always begins at home.


Thanks for sharing!

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