Thursday, February 7, 2019

Officers calm an autistic man by singing and dancing: what people can learn from this story

In my sixteen years of raising Max, I've had a fair number of encounters with strangers who stared, made comments about Max or otherwise acted rudely. But I've also had some great moments with ones who have treated him respectfully and accommodated his needs. I still remember the Transportation Authority agent at the Orlando Airport who helped us navigate the security line before Max melted down. "I have a child with autism," she told me. "I know how it goes."

There are good, decent people everywhere, of course, but there's nothing quite like connecting with ones who have children with disabilities in their families. They just know. I was reminded of this because of a story in the news. Ellen and Robert Hughes live in Chicago with their son Walker, 33, who has autism. Walker is a "gentle" type, as Ellen notes in her blog On Autism and Other Things, but he'd been acting violent one recent day and they headed to the hospital. They'd later find out he'd been having a reaction to medication.

As the family entered the ER at Loyola Medical Center, Walker bit his mom's hand hard. She screamed and suddenly a group of safety officers converged on them. "Like all autism parents, especially those with jumpy, nonverbal, 6'3" guys like our son Walker, my husband Robert and I can easily imagine how things often can go wrong very quickly when the police get involved," she wrote. That brings to mind Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome who grew distressed at a movie theater; police handcuffed him on his stomach on the ground, and he died of asphyxiation.

Things were not going well. Walker tried to jump off the examination table and escape. Instead of restraining him, though, the officers turned it into a game. As Ellen described it:

"Walker gets up!" they cheered.
They helped him sit back down.
"Walker sits down."
And he did.

"Walker scoots back."
He did.

"Walker lies down."
"High fives all around."
And, amazingly, Walker smiled and high-fived every one of them.

The officers repeated the routine again and again. Then they sang to him and danced. By the time Walker left, he was calm.

As it turned out, a sergeant on duty at Loyola that night had a son with autism, reports Chicago Tribute columnist Mary Schmich. When Walker mentioned Mary Poppins, he realized that music could help, why he sang everything to him from the Mr. Rogers' theme song to James Brown. Sgt. Miller stayed by Walker's side the entire time, and he was "clearly essential to this success," Ellen said.

The Hughes were lucky that Sgt. Miller was on call that night—but this wasn't just about him. The officers around him had a handle on how to respond, too, because Sgt. Miller had trained them. He'd taught them, among other things, that no two people with autism are alike and to gauge responses accordingly.  "It's amazing what a team of highly-trained, combat-ready, loving policemen can do," Ellen observed.

As the parent of a child with disabilities, I know how lucky this family was that someone there totally got it. I hope that, as this story goes viral, it helps others see that being sensitive to the needs of individuals with autism and other disabilities can go a long way. But something else important happened here: a whole group of people were able to respond appropriately, with empathy and ingenuity, because they'd learned about people with autism. They responded to the person, not the behavior. This is yet another wakeup call for the need to train law officers and emergency responders on interacting with people who have disabilities.

Once again, I'm sitting here aching for a world where people understand our children's behaviors and differences, instead of fearing them. We won't always be around to protect them.


  1. Fills my heart with gladness to read this. When people "get it," what a world of difference it makes. My hope is that these are the outcomes we read about rather than the tragic stories.

    1. I agree! I am crying tears of happiness right now, all because the officers showed what seems to be lacking in society -- compassion, understanding, and patience. Thank you for sharing such an uplifting story!

  2. Love this!!!! Thanks for sharing a happy outcome.

  3. This is so amazing that first responder ate being How To handle people with Disabilitys it should a must that these people are trained for these situation in their job it saves a lot of time heartache, misunderstanding, frustration.
    This artical is amazing brought joy to my heart and tears of joy to my eyes see I have a 10yr old Grandson who is Autistic, and has Tourretts he gets a lot of looks and reapers all cause people are not educated to understand Varieouse Disabilitys are children and loveones need more people in this world that are like these fine offersers in this artical I incourage all to educate yourself so you have the love and compassion needs when you meet the next disable child or adult it makes all the differents in the worl


Thanks for sharing!

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