I could have kicked myself for not getting the name of the wonderful New York City police officer who pulled me over the other night. I’m a safe driver for the most part, but Asperger’s sometimes interferes with my perceptions whether I’m standing still or navigating a dark road. It was rainy, I was distracted, and if I can’t even read body language … Well, I was as I so often am, stumped.
Even at my best it’s sometimes unclear to me why people honk their horns at me, so when the cop driving behind me started waving his hands I didn’t know if wanted me to get out of his way or whether he was trying to pull me over. Turns out it was the latter. I know this because he used his loudspeaker to announce to all of SoHo that I was to put my car in Park immediately. You’d think the police lights would have cued me in sooner, but the sensory overload just made me freeze, and we aspies don’t pick up on subtle hints. Like sirens.
Anyway, I figured he’d want to see my license, but I was too scared to move. Eventually, however, after he pounded on my passenger side window and I managed to lower it, I knew I needed some answer to a gruffly phrased “Is there a problem, Ma’am?” Very slowly, I handed him the emergency autism card I always carry and asked if he would be willing to look at it before we spoke any further.
Autism safety expert Dennis Debbaudt says that autistic people are seven times more likely than non-autistic people to have encounters with law enforcement. Luckily, this officer seems to be one of those law enforcement officials who had experience with people like me. Maybe he has an autistic family member, or maybe the NYPD just does really good staff training. Either way, I was so impressed by his whole demeanor after he took the time to look at my card.
He asked in a calm, slow voice if he could approach the driver’s side of the car so that we could hear each other better. I nodded. He then said, “I’m going to ask you some questions. If there’s anything you don’t understand, just tell me and I’ll go over it again.” I said yes, produced my licence on request and answered his very clearly phrased questions. He asked me if I was aware I had been straddling two lanes and said he had suspected I was a drunk driver. A few years ago, I’m afraid I wouldn’t have had the social sense to repress laughter, but by now I have acquired the social skills to do so. As a lifelong teetotaler, that particular accusation rarely comes my way. He then warmly greeted my quiet seven-year-old sitting in a car seat. The officer seemed unsurprised that my son didn’t answer; it’s possible he knew how likely it is for a parent on the autism spectrum to have an autistic child. He asked politely if I felt I could get us home safely. Thanks largely to his courtesy and professionalism I said I could. And I did.
This, my friends, is what I call true Autism Awareness. This encounter was not about frightening anyone into anthropomorphizing a neurolgical condition into an evil kidnapper hell-bent on stealing everything from me or my son that makes us human. This was about a decent person, a credit to his profession, who needed only the simplest of explanations to treat a person with a disability with the respect that every human being deserves.
Much credit should be heaped on this sadly anonymous individual and the entire police department he represents, but there is a larger issue here. We all, people with and without disabilities, must always be prepared to meet each other halfway. I carry an autism emergency card not as a convenience but as a public responsibility. It is my duty to reach out and communicate as best I can even when speech fails me. It is also always my responsibility to model this behavior for my autistic child. The officer did the right thing by stopping me to inform me I was endangering myself and others. And then he did the right thing again by drawing upon his training and experience to understand a person whose actions at first must have seemed reckless.
May we all treat each other with such respect and compassion, at all times.
A version of this essay was published at http://aspieadvocate-ascd.blogspot.com.